Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year End Roundup - Editor's top 7 posts of the Year

Here are our picks for the year's most entertaining posts. In the fine Letterman tradition, we are counting them down from least to most favorite... At number seven!!!

7) …What does it all mean?

6) …PTB? …WTF!

5) …High weirdness on the Giza Plateau.

4) …The four natural enemies of a (wo)man of knowledge.

3) …Singularity & the New Normal.

2) …The Empire Never Ended.

1) …A Vision of the Future.

Have a happy new year everyone... We'll see you next year with more synchronicities, mysteries and high weirdness... stay tuned.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Three Mysterious Magi

The Magi ( Greek: μάγοι, magoi), also referred to as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings, were in early Christian tradition, a group of Eastern Mystics who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi were mystic masters who were the first to identify Jesus. It states that "they" came "from the east" to worship the Christ, "born King of the Jews." In Eastern traditions, the Magi number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is a vague reference, possibly referring to Psalms 72:11, "May all kings fall down before him".

The traditional story goes as follows…

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the

'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'

" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.

It is interesting to note that in this biblical account, the three magi were “wise” to Herod’s ulterior motives, and did not “Rat baby Jesus out.”

The earliest known usage of the word Magi is in the trilingual inscription written by Darius the Great, the third king of the First Persian Empire also known as the Achaemenid Empire. The term Magi has been used since at least the 6th century BC, to denote followers of Zoroaster.

Zoroaster (c.630 - c.550 BC), also called Zarathustra, was an ancient Persian prophet who founded the first world religion - Zoroastrianism. According to the 'Zend Avesta', the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, he was born in Azerbaijan, in northern Persia, probably in the seventh century BC, although some scholars put the time-frame for Zoroaster much earlier.

petroglyphs from Azerbaijan
The earliest evidence of human settlement in the territory of Azerbaijan dates to the late Stone Age and is related to the Guruchay culture of the Azykh Cave. The Upper Paleolithic and late Bronze Age cultures are attested in the caves of Tağılar, Damcılı, Zar, Yataq-yeri and in the necropolises of Leylatepe and Saraytepe.

A major personality in the history of the religions of the world, Zoroaster has been the object of much attention for two reasons. On the one hand, he became a legendary figure believed to be connected with occult knowledge and magical practices in the Near Eastern and Mediterranean world in the Hellenistic Age (c. 300 bc–c. ad 300).

On the other hand, his monotheistic concept of God has attracted the attention of modern historians of religion, who have speculated on the connections between his teaching and Judaism and Christianity. Though extreme claims of pan-Iranianism (i.e., that Zoroastrian or Iranian ideas influenced Greek, Roman, and Jewish thought) may be debatable, the pervasive influence of Zoroaster’s religious thought must nevertheless be recognized.

As with most, if not all philosophic (and spiritual) traditions, Zoroaster advocated a version of the Golden Rule…
"That which is good for all and any one,
For whomsoever- that is good for me. . .
What I hold good for self, I should for all.
Only Law Universal is true law."

-          Zarathustra

The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a global ethical code of conduct. It has a long history, and a great number of prominent religious figures and philosophers have restated various forms of the Rule in numerous ways.

The Golden Rule is arguably the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights, in which each individual has a right to just treatment and a responsibility to ensure justice for others. A key element of the Golden Rule is that a person attempting to live by this rule treats all people, not just members of his or her in-group or tribe, with consideration.

The Golden Rule has its roots in a wide range of world cultures and is a standard which different cultures use to resolve conflicts. It is in this sense a truly global (if not universal) system of ethical behavior and as such serves as a cornerstone of human unity.

“Doing good to others is not a duty, it is a joy, for it increases our own health and happiness.”

-          Zarathustra

“Taking the first footstep with a good thought the second with a good word and the third with a good deed I entered Paradise”

-          Zarathustra

So during this wondrous time of year, take a moment to look past the rampant commercialism of the holiday season and remember the important things in life. Remember the spirit of the season… remember tidings of great joy. Remember that during this season, it is better to give from the heart, than from the pocketbook. Perhaps the gold, one of three gifts brought to baby Jesus by the the three mysterious Magi, was the golden rule... perhaps this was the gift of the Magi.

Have a happy and healthy Solstice celebration and be mindful of the Golden Rule…

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Singularity Apocalypse

In our March 15th post, entitled: A Vision of the Future, we made the following observation: “The nexus of possibilities that lay before us, collectively known as “the future” is obscured… clouded by a fog of potentialities… created in part by the amazing events of the near-past.” It can be argued that the event known as “Singularity” …the moment when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence… is that vast cloud of uncertainty that obscures our view of the future. Writing for Singularity Hub, Louie Helm expands upon the concept of Singularity as “cautionary tale.”

It seems these days that no sooner do you get out the words “AI risk” then someone snaps back “Skynet.” You mention “computer takeover” and they blurt “Hal 9000.” “Intelligence explosion” is greeted with “The Forbin Project!” and “normal accidents” with “MechaGodzilla!”

In other words, you can’t seriously discuss problems that might arise with managing advanced AI because Hollywood got there first and over-exercised every conceivable plot line. There’s plenty of tech fear out there thanks to Hollywood, but there’s also the tendency to imagine we’re immune to AI risk because it’s been in a movie, so, ipso facto it’s fantasy.

While it’s tempting to seek solace in this line of reasoning, the experts who are actually working on artificial intelligence have something else to say. Many point to a suite of looming problems clustered around the complexity of real-world software and the inherent uncontrollability of intelligence.
For example, Danny Hillis, of Thinking Machines, Inc., thinks we’ve entered a kind of evolutionary machine feedback loop, where we use complex computers to design computers of even greater complexity — and the speed of that process is outpacing our ability to understand it.

Hillis writes, “We’re at that point analogous to when single-celled organisms were turning into multi-celled organisms. We are amoebas, and we can’t figure out what the hell this thing is that we’re creating.”
Even Ray Kurzweil, who was recently hired by Google to take search into cognitive realms, thinks machines will “evolve beyond humans’ ability to control or even understand them.”

Complex? Opaque? Check! Then there’s the weaponization angle. While modestly funded academics at MIRI and FHI work on AI safety, big dollars are flowing in the opposite direction, towards human-killing AI. Autonomous kill drones and battlefield robots are on the drawing boards and in the lab, if not yet on the battlefield. Humans will be left out of the loop, by design.

Are they friendly? Safe? The Pentagon and stockholders won’t be a bit pleased if these killing machines turn out to be either.

So, in an environment where high-speed algorithms are battling it out in Wall Street flash crashes, and 56 nations are developing battlefield robots, is a book about bad outcomes from advanced AI premature, or right on time?

The recently released, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, by documentary filmmaker James Barrat, offers frank and sometimes raw arguments why the time is now, or actually, yesterday, to move the AI-problem conversation into the mainstream.

The problem isn’t AI, Barrat argues, it’s us.

Technological innovation always runs far ahead of stewardship. Look at nuclear fission. Splitting the atom started out as a way to get free energy, so why did the world first learn about fission at Hiroshima? Similarly, Barrat argues, advanced AI is already being weaponized, and it is AI data mining tools that have given the NSA such awesome powers of surveillance and creepiness.

In the next decades, when cognitive architectures far more advanced than IBM’s Watson achieve human level intelligence, watch out —“Skynet!” No, seriously. Barrat makes a strong case for developmental problems on the road to AGI, and cataclysmic problems once it arrives.

Imagine a half dozen companies and nations fielding computers that rival or surpass human intelligence, all at about the same time. Imagine what happens when those computers themselves become expert at programming smart computers. Imagine sharing the planet with AIs thousands or millions of times more intelligent than we are. And all the while the deepest pockets are weaponizing the best of this technology.

You can skip coffee this week — Our Final Invention will keep you wide-awake.

Barrat’s book is strongest when it’s connecting the dots that point towards a dystopian runaway-AI future and weakest when it seeks solutions. And maybe that’s the point.

The author doesn’t give Kurzweil the space and deference he normally gets as the singularity’s elder statesman, and the pitchman for an ever-lasting tomorrow. Instead Barrat faults Kurzweil and others like him for trumpeting AI’s promise while minimizing its peril, when they know that something fallible and dangerous lurks behind the curtain. Kinda like the Wizard of Oz.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

European Space Agency’s Gaia Project

Project Gaia is a space observatory being launched on December 20th, 2013, by the European Space Agency.

Gaia will be launched from the ESA’s spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, on a Soyuz ST-B rocket and will be boosted by a Fregat-MT upper stage to the Sun–Earth Lagrange point L2 located approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. The L2 point will provide the spacecraft with a very stable thermal environment.

Gaia is an ambitious mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, in the process revealing the composition, formation and evolution of the Galaxy. Gaia will provide unprecedented positional and radial velocity measurements with the accuracies needed to produce a stereoscopic and kinematic census of about one billion stars in our Galaxy and throughout the Local Group.

Gaia’s purpose is to catalogue the positions, substances and movements of a vast number of celestial bodies in our Milky Way over a period of five years, creating a 3-D map that will be available to astronomers world-wide. This amounts to about 1 per cent of the Galactic stellar population.