Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Expanding your vocabulary: Or why you should risk looking like a twat.

Twat... it’s a funny old word isn’t it? Don’t know what it means? Look it up.
Here’s some examples of words I’ve had to look up the meaning of recently:
Loquacious – found  in two separate articles in the same issue of The Australian.
Effulgent  - used by Stephen Fry in one of his podcasts to describe the late River Phoenix.
Inexorable – from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel.

I’d estimate I have a fairly comprehensive vocabulary. I read extensively as a child and young adult, which laid the foundations and helped develop my skills in analysing word meanings in context. Still and all, the wordiest individual in the world will be coming across words they don’t understand, and rather than passing over a novel word (even if the gist of the sentence has been adequately conveyed) I've taken to collecting a list of unknown words, and when the time presents itself, I sit down and look them up to try to gain a better sense of their meaning and usage.It might seem a bit anal on first pass, but there are several benefits, some personal, some simply entertaining.

Should you risk looking like a twat and employing 'big words' within everyday context? This was something I was regularly accused of doing in my high school days in the country. I regret nothing.

Here’s the background information on the reasons I think we should all be expanding and using our vocabularies in everyday life.

Kevin Warwick, in his book I.Cyborg, detailed his experiences as a human cyborg. In the book, he detailed his ideas on human language in a way that significantly impacted me and has stayed with me for years. He described human spoken language as being 'linear and slow' i.e. communicated one word at a time and only able to be communicated in human real time. In other words, in order to convey complex ideas, or ones that contained a lot of information, we have to spend time stringing one word in front of another in a bead like fashion until this information is properly communicated. On top of this, we can only do this at the snail’s pace of human speech.

Let’s stop here and do a little mental exercise. Take a notion in your head, hold it and all the information it contains. Now imagine how long it would take you to fully describe the intricacies and structure of this single notion to another person using human speech. Now imagine if you could directly transfer that notion to another’s brain, whole and unchanged and have them instantly understand it in its completeness. Theoretically this method of understanding could be almost instantaneous. Makes talking seem a tad inefficient eh?

If such thought transfer were possible, we could do away with the clumsy art of verbalisation, but right now this sort of communication is relegated to science fiction stories and the distant future. For the foreseeable future we are saddled with our inefficient, linear and snail paced wind-bagging, and although we might be tempted to slump into a despairing heap, or fall back to grunting and clubbing each other with branches, we can at least pack more of a meaningful verbal punch with every word we utter. This is where increasing our working vocabulary comes into play.

You see, it’s not entirely true that language is completely linear. This assumption is based upon the words that we most commonly communicate with and their relative simplicity. It completely disregards words (and jargon, but that’s another story) that embody entire conceptual packages, and words whose meanings operate on more than one level. In order to understand this concept, we can gain a glimpse by looking at words in other languages that have no english equivalent. For instance...

Weltschmerz (German) - the anguish experienced by someone who knows that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.

Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan) - a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.

Mencolek (Indonesian) - when someone taps someone else on the opposite shoulder to fool them.

Wab-sabi (Japanese) - a world view which finds the beauty in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness.

When we employ these types of words in our sentences, we can convey more meaning with each single sentence. It’s like zipping a file or increasing the capacity of a battery. And if we are communicating with someone who also has an expansive understanding of our language then we can achieve a faster rate of communication and possibly a more comprehensive understanding of the ideas being communicated.
It’s not enough that we look up words we do not understand, we must then begin to use them in context. To use these words is to reinforce our neural pathways in the understanding of the words and the embodied information contained therein. 

Language defines us to a large extent, when Professor Henry Higgins took Eliza Doolittle under his wing in a project to pass her off as a duchess for a bet in Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady for the musical lovers), he was not to realise that more than just Eliza's vocabulary was to change. In expanding her vocabulary, he allowed her to both understand more of her own mind and the minds of others, and to express herself far better in her communication. Eliza was fundamentally altered with this simple feedback between the changed individual, her environment and those she interacts with.

We can become our own Henry Higgins and develop a larger arsenal of words to employ in order to tackle and convey the immense complexity located within our own minds.

Image creator: Unknonwn.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Singularity And The Emergence Of Sentient Programs

The singularity. 

Every geek interested in technological evolution knows about it. The singularity is the point where technological innovation progresses at such lightening speed we see the appearance of artificial intelligence that has surpassed the level of human intelligence. This point heralds a time when there’s no longer any chance of predicting the future with any degree of accuracy, and while I’m interested in the vast array of changes that may come about due to this wild evolution, one particular point fascinates me and takes up a lot of my thinking time... the very emergence of these sentient machines and programs.

In a 1950 paper titled 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence' Alan Turing introduced a novel method of determining sentience in programs. This method was called, predictably, the Turing Test.The Turing Test involved a human subject who would sit in front of a computer screen and conduct a conversation with two other entities, one being a fellow human and the other being a computer program. The point of the test was to get the human to figure out which of the entities they were conversing with was the other human and which was the computer program. Turing surmised that a human would easily spot non sentient programs, even those which were specifically developed as conversational programs. Like other key interactive points, humans have evolved to glean an astounding amount of information from human to human conversations, even when cues such as visual, sound and even pheromonal are removed from incoming data. Turns out Turing was right, and in the early days of testing this method humans could always and easily determine with accuracy which of their conversation partners was another human and which were programs. Even today, with sophisticated programs designed for learning and conversation, most humans can tell with relative ease that the entity they are talking to is a program, though the reasons behind this innate perception are not always conscious. Like the uncanny valley in human recognition of digitally created faces, something just doesn’t sit right, and we just know it.

Turing and others posited that the first truly sentient man made program will overcome these innate detection systems and fool most of the people most of the time. Whether this is how we discover the first sentient entity we have created remains to be seen, it’s the immediate aftermath I am fascinated by. When the first sentient program is presented/discovered, what level of ability will it have, how fast will it learn and progress, how easy will it be for it to recreate itself, what will it think of itself and importantly, what will it think of us?

We can only presume that sentient technology will progress as fast and as unpredictably as other technologies once we have reached the spike. We could see an increase in computational ability and level of sentiency in these programs that far outweighs our own in just a few short generations. Even if sentient program evolution progresses at a more sedate pace, its onset means we have entered a realm of ethics of which we are wholly unfamiliar.

Given that we could be very near to the development of the first human made intelligence, it seems surprising there is not more dialogue on the ramifications of this turn of events, including discussion on laws and legislation covering such events.

Deeply important questions will need to be addressed as we wade through the ethical minefields of dealing with these new children of humanity. I cannot help imagining that somewhere in some university or private research facility there are even now programs that are close to what we perceive as self aware. Questions come to mind when I think of these early progenitors. How will we know specifically when the line has been crossed? Will we even know? The truth will most likely be that we won’t, at least for the first generation or so. Which for me raises an important question. The moment the first self aware program is deleted or otherwise permanently inactivated, has the first unethical destruction of a non-biological creature just occurred? Who are we to hold the power of life and death of an emergent kingdom of beings in our hands?

It may seem frivolous to call for dialogue on the treatment of an as yet non-existent artificial sentience; however it is not only the ethical dilemma of their creation and treatment we must deal with. Science fiction has long dealt with the ramifications of sentient machines evolving out of our control. Dark dystopian futures where humans are enslaved, our civilisations are destroyed, and even our complete annihilation wrought by machines who are either malevolently bent on our destruction, or oblivious to our concept of freedom like a child is to an ant’s.

It is naive to assume that the sentient machines we create (especially through evolutionary programs which take direct control out of human hands), will share the same goals and values as us, or even be able to identify and relate to us in any meaningful way.

This is the limitation of the Turing method, it presumes that emerging non-biological sentience will form in programs capable of intelligible communication in spoken/written human languages. The reality may be vastly different.

The flip side of a dystopian relationship between us and our non-biological children could be an accelerated evolution for us, individually and as a civilisation. Massive computational power in a sentient framework could help us deal with our shortcomings in planetary management, human interaction and clean energy production among other things. If we create sentient programs that are both capable of meaningful communication with us and that possess a desire to help us we could change radically as a society and as a species.

There is of course the possibility of humanity merging with AI through biomechanical augmentation and the uploading of human consciousness. We may even see different streams of artificial/mechanical intelligence, divergent from each other in their ways of creation, generations evolved from uploaded human minds to crystalline intelligences created by other sentient programs that bear no resemblance to their human creators whatsoever. The possibilities are as vast as the imagination can conceive.

Humans as a whole tend to ignore the big questions in favour of focussing on the challenges of everyday life. People have a habit of ignoring the future when it comes to addressing practical outcomes, including the creation and implementation of laws and legislation. It seems we hold the idea as a society that problems such as these are for future generations to deal with. I believe this is at least partly the reason why we have not addressed the issue of emerging artificial sentience in any practical sense.

Like many other pressing issues, we do ourselves and the planet a disservice by not engaging in a societal discussion about human created sentience and how we will deal with it when the time comes. And by the look of it, this time may be much closer than we realise. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Slow Thinking

There’s this culinary philosophy you might have heard of, it’s called Slow Food.
Slow food came about as part of a wider ‘slow’ movement, a response and resistance to the speeding up of our modern day society. It aims to return people to a saner pace of life, giving more time for reflection, appreciation of moments spent with friends and family, and a way to focus on the ‘slow’ ways of achieving our aims and goals.

Google ‘slow food’ and ‘slow movement’ and you’ll come up with an enormous amount of information if you’re interested in exploring that particular side of the philosophy. My take on the slow way of life is a little different. It's a little more intellectual rather than lifestyle oriented.
I've been developing this little theory; I've called it slow thinking.  This theory has come about mainly in response to certain observations over the years (both my own and other thinkers) that indicate we seem to perceive the end product of our thoughts, our opinions, as being the most important part of the entire intellectual journey.

Most of the time, as soon as a discussion worthy topic is mentioned, those of us who relish a good old debate are straight off the starters and into the race. We rush toward our (often preconceived) opinions as if we are aiming for gold at the Olympics, barely giving a nod to the often long and sometimes many branched pathways we have wandered in order to come to this opinion.
In the act of wanting to broadcast our opinions to the world, or at least to others in the current conversation, we can overlook several facets of thought that I feel are extremely important to thinking and understanding as a whole.

There is a simple saying attributed to Sir Francis Bacon

'Knowledge is power...'

Such a statement seems almost absurd in its obviousness, yet this pure and short philosophy is so commonly overlooked and misunderstood, that I find I am revisiting this sentence and reminding myself of its power on a regular basis. I too am guilty of forgetting such an obvious thing.
By knowledge, I do not mean the mere accumulation of facts, though these too are important in formatting a healthy world view. Knowledge encompasses many things, including our observations, our own and others’ experiences, and that elusive thing we call ‘wisdom’.

So how does all this fit in with the theory of slow thinking?

There is an aspect to knowledge that gets overlooked when we run to the finish line to spew forth our opinions and convince others of their correctness. We overlook the sheer necessity of dwelling on the mechanics of thought. To put it simply (and simple is almost always best), HOW we arrived at our opinions and views is as important (if not more so) as WHAT those views and opinions are.

Knowledge is the power to change ourselves, our environments and sometimes other people or the entire world. Our modern environment consists mainly of man made objects and people, remove other people and we are left with only our individual selves and our built environment.

Who makes and lives in these built environments of ours?


What allows people to influence, recreate and manage their environment most effectively?


It’s therefore not too huge a logical leap to make the connection between what other people think, and the consequences for our own environments.

Slow thinking allows us to wander at leisure through our own thought processes, making observations as to how we came to certain opinions and views, and even analysing these thought processes BEFORE formulating a solid view on a given issue.

We can derive so many extra dimensions to a world view by carefully following the patterns of our own thought pathways, allowing us in many instances to gain a better understanding of ourselves. Knowledge of ourselves is power over our own self.

Another extremely important application of slow thinking is to allow us to meander through the thoughts and thought mechanics of those who may hold wildly differing world views and opinions to our own. At this point I am reminded of some simple yet powerful images I discovered while using Stumbleupon years back. These images were designed by Liu Yang, a Chinese born woman who was educated from her teens through to adult life in Germany. Liu depicts in graphic form divergent world views in an ‘East meets West’ comparison.

Check out these compelling images Liu Yang created to show the difference in thinking.

We often say we understand that others around us think differently to ourselves, but how often do we take the time to try and understand HOW they think, not just WHAT they think. How have their thought processes led them to the conclusions they have made?

Slowing down the rush toward the almighty opinion can fill us with the profound realisation that, essentially, thought mechanics determine our final opinions and views. Understanding these mechanics can provide us with powerful mental tools to both analyse ours and other’s points of view and form a more wholistic, stable, and hopefully wiser world view of our own.

So take some time to purposely slow down those thought processes, move from the rapids of the intellectual river and dwell in amongst the slow flowing eddies and currents beside the bank.  I am certain there will be lots there for you to learn.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Voyage Of Voyager: Our Machines Out There In Space

The Voyage of Voyager: Our Machines Out There In Space

At certain moments I find myself contemplating Voyager 1's lonely flight out from the safe cradle of our solar system and into the unknown of interstellar space. Voyager 1 is currently the furtherest human made object from our home planet, rocketing at an astounding speed of over 60,000 kilometres per hour toward the stars. Also astoundingly, we are still receiving meaningful communication from it, though the vast distances of space and our current methods of communication make for a very slow conversation. It is conceivable that one day, travellers of non-terrestrial origin will pick up its inert form, haul it into their space ship and and inspect this piece of human space exploration history.

Back in the late 1970s when the voyager spacecrafts were being assembled, a record made of gold containing information on our planet and our species was placed into both Voyagers for just such an occasion. It comforts me that in the cold, mechanical process of space exploration, we as humans took the time to place such objects, a telling action on our part, and revealing of the romantic and aspiring notions we have of the greatest frontier we have ever encountered. How long and how far Voyager will hurtle into this frontier we cannot know, but space is the ultimate preserver of machines and its journey could be longer than our own.

So what about the machines we have left on celestial bodies in our solar system, those lost and lonely machines stranded on alien worlds? How long will they stand alone? Will they survive long enough to become historical monuments once we leave our earthly cradle and begin to explore the heavens?

The moon...

The Apollo landings left a host of objects that could be considered of historical significance. The first (and still so far the only) landings of humans on another celestial body means that not only are there objects such as flags, buggies, and scientific equipment, there are also footprints. The moon has no atmosphere, is geologically dead, and is only rarely impacted by anything of notable size. The moon is the perfect museum for preserving space exploration artefacts. Something as fragile as Neil Armstrong's first footprints in the fine Lunar regolith could last for thousands of years.


Up next in the historical timeline of space exploration is the Russian Venera series spacecraft, baking away on the surface of Venus. The first photos the craft (Venera 9 in 1975) took of itself and the Venusian landscape captured the imagination of the public and were the first photos from the surface of an actual planet other than Earth.

Considering the average temperature of Venus is over 450 degrees Celsius, the atmospheric pressure is a crushing 92 times that of Earth and the landscape is regularly renewed by volcanic activity, it's likely the Venera space crafts are no longer with us, eroded away or buried and melted under lava flows in this hellish landscape.


One of the darlings of the planetary family, Mars has had a succession of mechanical explorers sent to its surface to discover its secrets. In regards to long term preservation, human machines on Mars have in their favour the relatively thin Martian atmosphere, slower rate of oxidisation, and low temperatures. Against them they have the wild and abrasive Martian dust storms, with winds reaching speeds of almost 500 km per hour in some regions. And while Mars is relatively cold, the temperature differentials would contribute to metal fatigue and cracking. If at the end of its working life a robotic explorer rested in a relatively sheltered area, it may escape the worst ravages of the storms and be preserved for hundreds of years. In any case, it would definitely be faring better than its poor Venusian counterparts.


The largest moon of Saturn, Titan has long held the fascination of exobiologists with the enticing possibility of life on its cold but active and chemically rich surface. In 2005 the Huygens probe landed on Titan, snapping pictures of a surface covered in rocks and pebbles made of water ice and layered in hydrocarbon snow. Once again cool temperatures would contribute to the longevity of this probe against the ravages of time, but the hydrocarbon rich atmosphere and weather activity would mean that erosion, both chemical physical, would be a factor. Still better than Venus...

That's it for the current list of our industrious little machines that have beavered (or are still beavering) away on our behalf on the surface of our fellow terrestrial bodies. But while we are on the subject of humankind's interesting space junk, whatever happened to Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite which was launched by the Russians in 1957, scaring the bejesus out of honest, god fearing westerners with its ominous commie beeping, and starting the whole space race that brought us to where we are now? Turns out it lasted about three months in orbit before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and burning to a total crisp. So much for the grandaddy of all of the space machines being preserved for posterity.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A blog eh? Well... yes.

Having dabbled with blogs in the past, mostly not very consistently, I wanted to engage in a project that would foster a relationship between myself and the internet.  I wanted to develop an ongoing dialogue with a more in depth analysis than mere posts on social network and other sites could foster.

I have a penchant for intellectual conversations on pretty much any topic that will make me think, make me re evaluate my thoughts and opinions. It is with this in mind that I launched this blog, perhaps if only to develop my own concepts via the creation of coherent articles. Perhaps there is also the possibility of  fostering engagement with others who share the same desire for intelligent dialogue about issues that are important to us all as a species and as a civilisation.

In any case, here I am. We'll see how this pans out.