Of Asimov, Robots, Artificial Intelligence and What is a Human Anyway


You might say I have too much time on my hands. I would answer that I never have enough time, but my back injury continues and I have had time to think in a few directions.

Whether it is HAL 9000, remember “I’m sorry but I can’t do that Dave” as an answer to “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” from 2001 A Space Odyssey?

If you haven’t tried it, ask Alexa, Siri, Cortana or whatever your speech interface is to the internet, those famous words. “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” If only Arthur C Clarke was around to experience that.

Damn, I just remembered that they had a 4K restoration of the movie at Imax last month for the 50th anniversary of the movie. I was hoping to find someone to go with and then totally forgot about it. That would have been amazing.

AsimovI collect books and in recent years have given away many books that I was never going to read again, but decided to extend my collections of specific writers and starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I looked at what was missing from my Isaac Asimov collection and amongst others bought a copy of The Bicentennial Man.

Asimov is of course famous for the 3 Laws of Robotics. Ironically a lot of people debunked his laws and said they were flawed and used that to criticise him as being unrealistic or perhaps idealistic, which is a trait of many SciFi authors of the 70’s. However, he knew that himself. In many of his stories, robots disobeyed the laws.

There is a great story in this book called That Thou Art Mindful of Him, in which is a play on Psalm 8:4-6, he also infers in some of the stories that he was Jewish through some of the characters and had a keen sense of humor.

In this story (and I’m sorry for the spoiler) a series of robots are produced and given the capability to become self aware, in effect sentient. They redefine what it is to be human and declare themselves as such.

I played with the thought of Singularity and imagined if autonomous cars could pass the Turing Test 

I also looked at what might happen if they didn’t and what hackers might be able to do.

What I keep coming back to and writers like Philip K Dick, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and many others foresaw 50 and more years ago and similar to where the TV series Humans is heading, is that humans are dangerous to the planet.

Now I like being human and I hope that my descendants will have safe and healthy planet for thousands of years from now and many of my little stories are in jest.

BUT, if climate change, plastic pollution, air pollution, brinkmanship politics, drought, famine, and war are the result of how great and committed we humans fancy ourselves to be, would it not be realistic if an Artificial Intelligence was developed to the point of Singularity and able to continue to learn with or without programmed biases, would their logic determine that the human race should either be limited or allowed to exterminate ourselves?

Kurzweil looked at it a different way and said that Singularity would occur around 2045 and potentially be a synthesis between human and machine, in effect human 2.0. He would be about 98 at that point in time, so it will be interesting to see if he is still around and if he is right.

Maybe Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and many futuristic projects should have the last word. He’s pretty successful and walks the talk. DARPA, Rex Bionics and hundreds of companies, universities and other innovators are developing systems that will be able to think for themselves. Yes, for specific purposes, but they are being created.

It’s interesting that in this clip, they say that Science Fiction is usually about 50 years ahead of its time. So back to Asimov, reading him today, especially a book like The Bicentennial Man, where like Stephen King and others, he talks about his stories, was he in fact prophetic?

Yes, maybe I’ve had too much time to think, but do you think we should be thinking about this. Just imagined if a machine, say a Robocop decided that using facial recognition or perhaps racial recognition, that you were, could be, or could become a criminal and then think about biases that go into programming, often of necessity.

What conclusions could an AI start taking when given some information and some bias and then left to learn on the basis of that starting point? Oh and I didn’t even mention George Orwell. He wrote Animal Farm in 1945. Remember “All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others”? Shutting up now……..

 

In Vitro Grown Meat – Feeding the Future


The other day I was thinking about the proposed manned Mars trip and trying to get my head around how to feed a number of astronauts for a 1,000 day trip in a small space craft. The thought was started while reading an article about Cosmic Rays, which are a potential threat to astronauts, but that is entirely another discussion.

Our planet today has a number of problems in being able to feed a growing population, which combined with major droughts in some parts of the world and heavy rains in others, exacerbated or caused by global warming, we are already in a situation of food crisis. If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t personally have a problem, but the problem is nevertheless there.

The first problem, which is the most difficult, is poverty. According to the World Hunger Education Service, almost 1 billion people have incomes of no more than US$1 per day. That doesn’t buy a whole lot of food.

Given the climate conditions, growth of population, finding the ground to plant sufficient crops that are not labour and water intensive is difficult and another issue is lack of certain key needs such as proteins.

One option for this going forward could be to grow food in vats. All kinds of food could be grown in vats and they have been doing this in Science Fiction books for close to 100 years. Now vegetable matter, fungus and yeast are relatvely easy, meat is a different story.

As I continued on my thread, I was thinking about chicken being one of the most popular if not the most popular meat being eaten today. The way they bread chickens in poultry farms for meat or eggs is commonly regarded as cruelty although the farmers will argue that they have little choice.

Tissue engineering is a science that has been around for quite a while. In fact if you have a child today, you already have the option of harvesting the stem cells from your baby’s umbilical cord. Cordbank in New Zealand offers cryogenic storage of your baby’s umbilicus, so that if your child ever got cancer and needed fresh stem cells, they are there and ready. The Stem Cells have your child’s exact DNA, so there are no risks of rejection if they are needed and at this stage they have no age damage. Stem cells have the inherent ability to become pretty much any human organ.

Tissue engineering has the potential to not only save lives, but also to prolong it. In future it could be used to help people recover from brain injuries and perhaps condiions such as Parkinsons Disease. It can help with regenerating heart tissue and much much more.

It can also be used to generate food. Distasteful as it may sound, I’m sure in the future if you were offered fish chunks that were made in a lab in a double blind test with real fish of the same sort, you would struggle to tell whch one was real. This isn’t Sci-Fi, it has already been achieved. One of the motives for this research was the type of space travel I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

If you could eat nice white chicken meat that was tender and had the same texture you expected, but no chickens were mistreated or battery grown in cramped conditions, i.e. no sentience and no pain. Why wouldn’t you? If you could provide healthy food to millions of people in environments where they otherwise couldn’t get it and would suffer from malnutrition and eventually die a horrible death, why not?

I’m not sure what, if any research in tissue engineering is happening in NZ, but we have the credentials to do it and government support for biotechnology. In the medical world there is plenty happening such as the orthopaedic research at Otago University. If I’m lucky, I could live longer because of this research. I would love to see 120 or 130 years on this planet, and not vegetating in a rest home, wouldn’t you?