Strong AI has been on my mind a lot lately. We use weak AI all the time and the difference between then two has become more apparent as the limitations, in a particular context, of an application of weak AI (such as Siri) becomes painfully apparent in daily use.
When I was a student at MIT in the 1980s, computer science and artificial intelligence were front and center. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert were the gods of MIT LCS and just looking at what happened in 1983, 1984, and 1985 at what is now CSAIL (what used to be LCS/AI) will blow your mind. The MIT Media Lab was created at the same time – opening in 1985 – and there was a revolution at MIT around AI and computer science. I did a UROP in Seymour Papert’s lab my freshman year (creating Logo on the Coleco Adam) and took 6.001 before deciding to do Course 15 and write commercial software part-time while I was in school. So while I didn’t study at LCS or the Media Lab, I was deeply influenced by what was going on around me.
Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of strong AI and the concept of the singularity. I put myself in the curious observer category rather than the active creator category, although a number of the companies I’ve invested in touch on aspects of strong AI while incorporating much weak AI (which many VCs are currently calling machine learning) into what they do. And, several of the CEOs I work with, such as John Underkoffler of Oblong, have long histories working with this stuff going back to the mid-1980s through late 1990s at MIT.
When I ask people what the iconic Hollywood technology film about the future of computing is, the most common answer I get is Minority Report. This is no surprise to me as it’s the one I name. If you are familiar with Oblong, you probably can make the link quickly to the idea that John Underkoffler was the science and tech advisor to Spielberg on Minority Report. Ok – got it – MIT roots in Minority Report – that makes sense. And it’s pretty amazing for something done in 2002, which was adapted from something Philip K. Dick wrote in 1956.
Now, fast forward to 2014. I watched three movies in the last year purportedly about strong AI. The most recent was Her, which Amy, Jenny Lawton, and I watched over the weekend, although we had to do it in two nights because we were painfully bored after about 45 minutes. The other two were Transcendence and Lucy.
All three massively disappointment me. Her was rated the highest and my friends seemed to like it more, but I found the portrayal of the future, in which strong AI is called OS 1, to be pedantic. Samantha (Her) had an awesome voice (Scarlett Johansson) but the movie was basically a male-fantasy of a female strong AI. Lucy was much worse – once again Scarlett Johansson shows up, this time as another male fantasy as she goes from human to super-human to strong AI embodied in a sexy body to black goo that takes over, well, everything. And in Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays the sexy strong character that saves the femme fatale love interest after dying and uploading his consciousness, which then evolves into a nefarious all-knowing thing that the humans have to stop – with a virus.
It’s all just a total miss in contrast to Minority Report. As I was muttering with frustration to Amy about Her, I wondered what the three movies were based on. In trolling around, they appear to be screenplays rather than adaptations of science fiction stories. When I think back to Philip K. Dick in 1956 to John Underkoffler in 2000 to Stephen Spielberg in 2002 making a movie about 2054, that lineage makes sense to me. When I think about my favorite near term science fiction writers, including William Hertling and Daniel Suarez, I think about how much better these movies would be if they were adaptations of their books.
The action adventure space opera science fiction theme seems like it’s going to dominate in the next year of Hollywood sci-fi movies, if Interstellar, The Martian (which I’m very looking forward to) and Blackhat are any indication of what is coming. That’s ok because they can be fun, but I really wish someone in Hollywood would work with a great near-term science fiction writer and a great MIT (or Stanford) AI researcher to make the “Minority Report” equivalent for strong AI and the singularity.
I hate doing “reflections on the last year” type of stuff so I was delighted to read Fred Wilson’s post this morning titled What Just Happened? It’s his reflection on what happened in our tech world in 2014 and it’s a great summary. Go read it – this post will still be here when you return.
Since I don’t really celebrate Christmas, I end up playing around with software a lot over the holidays. This year my friends at FullContact and Mattermark got the brunt of me using their software, finding bugs, making suggestions, and playing around with competitive stuff. I hope they know that I wasn’t trying to ruin their holidays – I just couldn’t help myself.
I’ve been shifting to almost exclusively reading (a) science fiction and (b) biographies. It’s an interesting mix that, when combined with some of the investments I’m deep in, have started me thinking about the next 30 years of the innovation curve. Every day, when doing something on the computer, I think “this is way too fucking hard” or “why isn’t the data immediately available”, or “why am I having to tell the software to do this”, or “man this is ridiculous how hard it is to make this work.”
But then I read William Hertling’s upcoming book The Turing Exception, remember that The Singularity (first coined in 1958 by John von Neumann, not more recently by Ray Kurzweil, who has made it a very popular idea) is going to happen in 30 years. The AIs that I’m friends with don’t even have names or identities yet, but I expect some of them will within the next few years.
We have a long list of fundamental software problems that haven’t been solved. Identity is completely fucked, as is reputation. Data doesn’t move nicely between things and what we refer to as “big data” is actually going to be viewed as “microscopic data”, or better yet “sub-atomic data” by the time we get to the singularity. My machines all have different interfaces and don’t know how to talk to each other very well. We still haven’t solved the “store all your digital photos and share them without replicating them” problem. Voice recognition and language translation? Privacy and security – don’t even get me started.
Two of our Foundry Group themes – Glue and Protocol – have companies that are working on a wide range of what I’d call fundamental software problems. When I toss in a few of our HCI-themes investments, I realize that there’s a theme that might be missing, which is companies that are solving the next wave of fundamental software problems. These aren’t the ones readily identified today, but the ones that we anticipate will appear alongside the real emergence of the AIs.
It’s pretty easy to get stuck in the now. I don’t make predictions and try not to have a one year view, so it’s useful to read what Fred thinks since I can use him as my proxy AI for the -1/+1 year window. I recognize that I’ve got to pay attention to the now, but my curiosity right now is all about a longer arc. I don’t know whether it’s five, ten, 20, 30, or more years, but I’m spending intellectual energy using these time apertures.
History is really helpful in understanding this time frame. Ben Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington in the late 1700s. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in the mid 1800s. John Rockefeller in the early 1900s. The word software didn’t even exist.
We’ve got some doozies coming in the next 50 years. It’s going to be fun.
I did a really fun hour long interview with Nikola Danaylov – who goes by Socrates – on the Singularity Weblog. We covered a wide range of topics around humans, machines, the singularity, where technology is going, and some philosophy around the human race and it’s inevitable Cylon future.
This was one of the more stimulating set of questions I’ve had to address recently. My fundamental message – “be optimistic.” Enjoy!
I was totally fried and fighting off a cold yesterday so I decided to spend my digital sabbath on the couch watching Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica. I took a short break at lunch time to try to induce a diabetic coma while gorging on pancakes at Snooze (which necessitated me skipping dinner and going to bed at 7pm, which resulted in me being wide awake at 11pm, hence the blog post at 200am on Sunday morning.)
While mildly ironic that I would spend digital sabbath watching Battlestar Galactica, it was deeply awesome. I have no idea how I missed the re-imagining of the series in 2003. I vaguely remember seeing the original in junior high school around the time everyone was obsessed with Star Wars. But it didn’t make a deep impression on me and my brain tossed it in the storage bin of “other sci-fi stuff.”
Season 1 from 2003 was stunningly good. The mix of low-brow CGI, complex religious metaphors, classical government / military conflict, scary prescient singularity creatures (the evolved Cylons) who are masterful at manipulating the humans, and rich characters made this a joyful way to spend a day relaxing.
I’ve got Season 2 ahead of me but rather than binge watch it like I did today, I think I’ll space it out a little. And – no more five pancake lunches at Snooze. Egads.
I just found out that Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City made the Amazon Top 10 Business Books of 2012.
I’m not a huge “made that list person” but as a writer this is a very cool thing, especially when I look at the other books, and writers, on the list. I’m downloading all of the other books right now and taking them on my two week vacation which is coming up.
I’m at Defrag this morning listing to Kevin Kelly explain how the global super organism already exists and why it is different than the Kurzweil defined Singularity. Awesome – and extremely consistent with how I think about how the machines have already taken over. Kevin’s intellectual approach is clearer and deeper – which I like, and will borrow heavily from. Kevin’s book, What Technology Wants, is also in a swag bag and I’ll be reading it next week.
One of the powerful concepts is that the “city is the node.” As I’ve been talking about Startup Communities, I’ve been explaining the power of “entrepreneurial density” and why everyone is congregating around cities again (intellectually referred to as the reurbanism of American). It’s really cool that he’s using the Degree Confluence Project to “show” (rather than simply “tell”) this.
A few of the books on the Amazon Top 10 Business Books of 2012 touch on this theme – I’ll be looking for it as I read a lot on the beach the next few weeks.
I gave a talk titled “Resistance Is Futile” yesterday in Park City at the annual meeting for one of our LPs. This is a version of a talk I’ve given several times, starting at Defrag last fall. The slides don’t change, but I make up the talk each time and tune it to the audience.
When I got to the slide titled Science Fiction Is Becoming Science Fact I went off on a version of my rant about the importance of reading, watching, and thinking about science fiction. I always use Oblong and co-founder John Underkoffler’s work as an example here since they have created a company around the iconic science fiction future that John envisioned for the movie Minority Report.
But then I mentioned a book I’d just read called Avogadro Corp. While it’s obviously a play on words with Google, it’s a tremendous book that a number of friends had recommended to me. In the vein of Daniel Suarez’s great books Daemon and Freedom (TM), it is science fiction that has a five year aperture – describing issues, in solid technical detail, that we are dealing with today that will impact us by 2015, if not sooner.
There are very few people who appreciate how quickly this is accelerating. The combination of software, the Internet, and the machines is completely transforming society and the human experience as we know it. As I stood overlooking Park City from the patio of a magnificent hotel, I thought that we really don’t have any idea what things are going to be like in twenty years. And that excites me to no end while simultaneously blowing my mind.
I’m spending the day tomorrow at the Silicon Flatirons Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This year’s theme is “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.” And, as we recently discovered with SOPA, PIPA, and now ACTA there are huge disconnects between government, lawyers, incumbents, and innovators. I’m on one panel which I’ll make sure is spicy – I hope others really get into the issues this year. There will be a live stream of the event on UStream (which is awesome – imagine the effort to do that 20 years ago) so you can watch it in real time if you want.
I don’t care what your political orientation is, if you want an awesome two hour lesson in leadership watch the movie Thirteen Days. It’s the story of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis based on the book by May and Zelikow titled The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Amy and I watched it last night. I was exhausted from two weeks on the east coast and was having trouble speaking (Amy refers to it as “getting the dregs of Brad.”) I think I was even out of dregs so I just laid on the coach and watched the movie. I half watched it a few months ago while catching up on email and I saw it when it first came out so I knew the story. But when I watched it a few months ago I didn’t give it my undivided attention. This time I did because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else.
On Thursday and Friday I was in DC and had four significant experiences. The first was a tour of the CIA which, while limited to very specific physical areas (including the CIA gift shop), included a 75 minute roundtable with the CIA’s CTO and his team about the future. Later Thursday night I had a very quiet tour of the West Wing. Friday morning I was on a panel on The Need for Net Neutrality with Brad Burnham (Union Square Ventures) and Santo Politi (Spark Capital) followed by a dynamite meeting at the White House with Phil Weiser and members of the National Economic Council team, Aneesh Chopra (CTO of the US), and Vivek Kundra (CIO of the US). For two days I was immersed in government leadership.
Yesterday I woke up very late in the morning to Brad Burnham’s post titled Web Services as Governments. It’s a must read post where he makes several very specific analogies for which web services act like which kinds of government. He specifically breaks down which government he thinks Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist look like. While you may not agree with his mappings, the general construct is incredibly powerful when you think about creating a company that operates on top of a web service (or platform company.)
And then – after sleeping most of the day – I watched Thirteen Days. As I was immersed in it, I kept thinking about examples from Brad’s post as well as my experience dealing with web services that are powerful governments. When I think about those examples, Thirteen Days is a movie that every CEO and every member of the management team in these companies (or any company for that matter) should watch.
As a bonus, in both my CIA meeting and the Net Neutrality panel I got to toss out my line that “in 40 years we will not be able to distinguish between biological machines and non-biological humans. Basically the machines will take over and our goal should be that they are nice to us.” After waking up this morning feeling much more rested, it was extra fun to see a huge NY Times titled Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday about the Singularity.
After spending the last seven hours in front of my computer, a phrase came to mind that my brother Daniel recently said to me in response to reading The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Daniel said:
“What if we we are already working for the computers?”
While The Matrix and Horton Hears a Who! come immediately to mind, his comment was subtler than that. What if we turn the entire paradigm on its side? In our biological realm we “evolve”; in our computing realm we “innovate.” What if the computers are actually evolving and have figured out that the best way for them to evolve more quickly is to convince us to “innovate” for them.
I had to stop and scrunch my eyes together after typing that paragraph. The first draft I wrote was way weirder and more out there – basically a rant about how computers were having a conversation in a parallel universe that we don’t actually understand and, as part of this, had figured out how to manipulate human beings.
At Ted yesterday, my long time friend John Underkoffler, the co-founder of Oblong stated “Technology is capable of expressing generosity. And we need to demand that.”
While he meant something totally different, I think this is consistent with the parallel universe I’m pondering. As humans (at least most Americans), we regularly envision ourselves at the top of the pyramid of existence, unless you are not an atheist, in which case god factors in somewhere on your hierarchy. But – let’s leave god (or the lack of god) out and think about “humans as a species” vs. “computers as a species”. I started with constructs like collective consciousness and communication hierarchy and was able to quickly come up with a straightforward analogy for each one between the human species and the computer species.
And yet, I still type. All in the name of sharing and contributing my thoughts via this very interesting mechanism. I’m going to run for three hours this afternoon. I’ll have my Garmin 305 on my wrist (with its GPS) and my iPhone in my pack (listening to the end of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ll be contributing a lot of data to both devices, which will then record them and upload them to “the computer”. The amount of data I’m generating is enormous; I’m not quite sure what the computers are using all of this data for, but what if it was actually something specific?
Before you discard these thoughts as the ravings of a lunatic, just think about them for a minute. This is a common construct in so much contemporary science fiction. Maybe the “collective compute infrastructure” of the world has already passed us by and now have us working for them / it. Wouldn’t that be something to discover 100 years from now.