Hobs Towler | Manifesto

We ought to avoid creating autonomous algorithms that grade assignments.

This is a topic that has come up in class a fair number of times by now, which I think merits it at least a nomination for this manifesto that we're working on.

The issue is presented in Benjamin Winterhalter’s Salon article alarmingly titled “Computer grading will destroy our schools.” Now, despite the sensationalistic title, the core issue behind this article is not actually computer grading (which has actually been around already for a fair number of years: scantrons anyone?) The issue that Winterhalter seeks to bring to our attention is the expanding use of new types of learning-capable computer algorithms for use in grading applications, specifically essay grading. This becomes an issue when the human operator feels that the algorithm is able to act autonomously and the students are now writing solely for the benefit of an algorithm, which no matter how good is susceptible to a certain amount of cheating if the student knows the grading criteria (average word length, complexity of words, etc). And while these algorithms may eventually approximate the discretion of a human grader with regards to the difference between an “A” grade essay and an “F,” there comes a point in the whole process where one has to wonder what the point of writing is if only a machine is there to read anything anymore.

Furthermore, I feel that the issue of automated grading systems degrades the entire system by essentially making the standards by which assessments are made too dependent on past standards by which assessments have been made.

Source: http://www.salon.com/2013/09/30/computer_grading_will_destroy_our_schools/

We should seek to augment ourselves wherever possible.

Ray Kurzweil, a noted futurist, refers to an event in the near future which he calls the technological singularity. This event refers to the point at which artificial intelligence somehow surpasses human intelligence—either collectively or on an individual level—and initiates a period of significant change for the human race. This is the point where most science fiction authors run away screaming as the terminator robots warp in to murder the past. However, Kurzweil believes that such super intelligences will remain benevolent, possibly due to some fail safe in their programming (Three Laws of Robotics) or simply as a result of sentience and seek to elevate humanity to its level and in the process “radically change human civilization, and perhaps even human nature itself.”

There are many authors that write about similar events in our possible future. Cory Doctorow writes about the Noosphere in his short story “I, Rowboat” as being a place where humanity migrated its consciousness transcending earthly form in the process. The Noosphere (sphere of human thought) was originally thought of as a phase of the earth’s development preceded by the geosphere and the biosphere. Doctorow envisions it as a network of satellites that contains the minds of humanity in some sort of cloud server formation. They are immortal for as long as the machinery continues operating. Similarly, humans in Asimov’s “The Last Question” transcend their bodies and merge with the Universal AC, a sort of supercomputer contained in hyperspace that eventually recreates the universe after it ends.

The technological singularity is exciting because it represents a significant step forward in the evolution of humanity and also possibly the first time we will be able to take direct control of its course.

Sources: Isaac Asimov's The Last Question, Kurzweil's concept of the technological singularity, and Cory Doctorow's I, Rowboat

We ought to stop making every device a touch screen.

Many people are unable to conceive of the environmental impact that our obsession with technology is having. However, it’s a fact that the consumer electronics industry fuels the endless search for precious metals such as gold and platinum, which are still widely used as contacts between components, and rare earth metals which are used in display technologies like flat screen televisions and smart phones and batteries such as those used in hybrid cars and laptops. It’s also a fact that these metals are in relatively short supply. I heard somewhere that all of the gold ever mined in the world melted into a solid 20 foot tall brick wouldn’t even fill a standard tennis court.

Touch screens currently require a metal known as indium. Indium is a byproduct of zinc mining and it is predicted that the global supply of indium will be exhausted by about 2020. The price of indium had already increased to nearly $1000 for a kilogram by 2009 when the smart phone explosion was hitting full swing and devices like the iPad were beginning to hit the market. The article “The Trouble With Touch Screens” indicates that many companies were attempting to develop substitutes for the metal, and many of them may have at least reduced their need for indium by now or even eliminated it entirely, but the fact remains that there are still a great many specialized compounds that cannot be synthesized easily and our search for these compounds can be immensely destructive to the environment.

Sources: http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/gadgets/the-trouble-with-touch-screens http://www.livescience.com/38094-facts-about-rare-earth-elements-infographic.html

We ought to cease the pursuit of advanced artificial intelligence.

Pick your robot-based apocalypse: the Matrix, I Am Robot, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Second Variety, Halo, The Machine Stops, the Terminator series, the list goes on and on, but things never seem to end well when advanced autonomous artificial intelligences enter the equation.

Call it fear or call it caution so long as the machines do not take over. Isaac Asimov’s solution to the cybernetic revolution comes in the form of his Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In theory, these three laws appear to be airtight. However, those of you that have seen the I, Robot movie starring Will Smith will know that these rules are subject to just as much interpretation by the robots in which they have been imprinted as a judge might give the constitution. Further, readers of Asimov’s Robot series (which the movie was loosely based on) will know that much of the conflict in the series derives from faulty interpretations of the three laws.

The idea that I’m trying to present is essentially that there might be no absolutely safe way to cultivate a true artificial intelligence and if there is any predictive power to science fiction then the Robot series, whose fundamentals have been adopted by many authors and members of the scientific community then it may be prudent to heed such warnings.

Sources: Asimov's Robot series and http://io9.com/5048250/why-we-need-the-three-laws-of-robotics-in-the-real-world

We should not pursue technologies that seek to reduce the drudgery of our daily lives.

It’s just like your mother always said, “Just because it’s faster doesn’t necessarily make it better.” Well maybe it’s just my mother that says that. There are countless examples of conveniences that have not really improved anything in terms of quality. I’ll give you the one that I love to harp on: the microwave. Has anyone ever really looked forward to eating a microwave hot pocket? I would imagine that the answer is a firm “no,” but they continue to be consumed regardless of their quality because they’re easy to make. Similarly, heating up something like penne alfredo, which I made entirely from scratch, is a problematic endeavor when the microwave becomes involved because the sauce just separates leaving you with stringy parmesan and soupy mess up butter and cream at the bottom of the pile of pasta.

Let’s just avoid talking about what happens to bread in a microwave.

But the microwave has been and continues to be touted as a quick and easy alternative to a full-sized oven. Indeed the concept is embedded in the second and rarely used half of the microwave’s name: “oven.”

Perhaps this account of microwaves has been overly anecdotal. So I would like you to consider E.M. Forster’s the Machine Stops. In the short story, humanity has been boiled down to pudgy, infantile creatures encased in a womb-like room, surrounded by buttons and machinery that exists solely to make life simpler and easier. And then it all breaks and everyone dies in the end because nobody knows how to do anything as basic as starting a fire, or really, breathing air. The lesson in Forster’s story appears to be that we should exercise caution lest technology somehow weaken us.

Source: E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops

We should embrace smart phone technology as a new paradigm of information transmittance.

According to research done by the Pew Research Center, smart phone adoption in the United States is on the rise. Of all of the American adults in the country, about 56% of them own a smart phone. Last year that number was only 46% and the year before it was 35%. Among the youngest subset of the population surveyed (18 - 29 years old), smartphone ownership rests at an astonishing 90% compared with 81% the year before and 87% in the next demographic (30 – 49 year olds).

Part of this rising trend can be attributed to an aggressive marketing campaign from the big cell phone carriers (Verizon, AT&T, etc) who want to sign their customers up for the more expensive data plans that come with the smart phones, but a lot of it could likely be due to word of mouth or the rise of social media platforms and the appeal of always having an internet ready device with a camera attachment. Whatever the case may be, Pandora’s box has been opened and it doesn’t seem likely that the smart phone will become obsolete in the foreseeable future, so let’s embrace the technology and see what is really possible with it.

Many of the problems with smart phones today are their restrictions that are ostensibly imposed by the carriers who, incidentally don’t appear to see any need to develop appropriate infrastructure for the products they’re pushing. I personally would be excited to see a platform develop that is carrier agnostic and completely open source.

Source: http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2013/PIP_Smartphone_adoption_2013.pdf