A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘science

[NEWS] Some Wednesday links

  • Al Jazeera shares Sarah Kendzior’s argument that the disappearance of shopping malls will not mean the automatic return of downtowns in many cities, and notes the migration of many young Americans–including Vietnamese-Americans–to a booming Vietnam.
  • Business Week observes that in higher education, China wants more people with vocational degrees and fewer academics, while comments that the use of Minnan dialect by China’s spokesperson to Taiwan isn’t doing much to encourage reunification.
  • The CBC shares the request of American retailer target to its customers to please leave their guns home, and notes a finding in Québec that penalized Wal-Mart for closing down a store there after its workforce became unionized.
  • National Geographic notes evidence from an Archaeopreryx fossil that feathers evolved before flight, and comments on the cultural and other issues that make fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa so difficult.
  • Universe Today notes there are no lunar seas on the far side of the Moon because of the heat of the Earth in the Moon’s early days reached only the near side, and comments on the evidence of asteroid impacts on the surface of Vesta.

[LINK] “Clever crows beaten by babies in causality test”

Via io9 I came across an article by Wired‘s Kadhim Shubber summarizing a study on the intelligence of the famously bright New Caledonian crow, “Of babies and birds: complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of the ability to create a novel causal intervention”.

If you observed a brick falling onto a button that dispensed food, you would quickly realise that you didn’t need the brick to get the food. You could just push the button yourself.

You have observed a sequence of cause and effect, and although you haven’t directly experienced it, you can figure out what’s going on and get the food.

Caledonian crows, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, aren’t able to do this.

“The crows are great at solving certain types of problems but, as our new study shows, struggle at others,” lead author Alex Taylor told Wired.co.uk via email. “Discovering the limits of their cognition allows us to get a better understanding of how intelligence evolves, and which aspects our our cognition are particularly special.”

Taylor and his colleagues have studied Caledonian crows for years, and have been the source of numerous papers on their intelligence, including a March paper that replicated Aesop’s Fable of a thirsty crow using stones to raise the water level in a half-filled container.

Indeed a 2009 study showed that the crows are able to understand cause and effect quite well. Crows that received food as an effect of pushing a platform with their beak then learned to use other tools, like stones, to move the platform if it was out of reach.

The crucial difference, said Taylor, is that this required a direct experience. The crows had previously pushed the platform themselves.

“Animals are very good at learning from their own experience, or via observing the effects of others (social learning),” he said. “But so far only humans appear to be able to simply observe an effect in the world, and, without reference to their own behaviour or another humans, then create a novel behaviour to cause the effect.”

Written by Randy McDonald

June 16, 2014 at 7:56 pm

[LINK] What it actually means for Eugene to have passed the Turing test

News that a computer passed the Turing test was quickly undermined once people began looking into the claim in detail. CBC’s John Bowman collected a sample of the criticisms on Twitter.

News media, including the CBC, carried the story and the skepticism surrounding it. But on Twitter, programmers and tech journalists almost immediately began to question the claim on a number of fronts.

Eugene Goostman isn’t a “supercomputer,” but a computer program called a “chatbot,” meant to emulate a person typing into an instant messaging service, they pointed out.

As for the claim that it “passed” the “Turing Test” “for the very first time,” well, they found each part of that claim questionable.

The Turing test is based on a question and answer game, proposed by renowned British mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing, to distinguish humans from computers.

Turing predicted in a 1950 paper that within 50 years, computers would play the game so well that an “average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.”

[. . .] There’s even dispute over whether the test as the researchers set it up was really the “iconic Turing Test.” The judges were told that “Eugene” was a 13-year-old boy from Odessa, Ukraine, and that English wasn’t his first language.

So, right away, the bar was lowered.

Wired‘s Adam Mann takes it apart at leisure.

There’s nothing in this example to be impressed by,” wrote computational cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum of MIT in an email. He added that “it’s not clear that to meet that criterion you have to produce something better than a good chatbot, and have a little luck or other incidental factors on your side.”

Screenshots on the BBC’s article about the win show a transcript that doesn’t read like much more than a random sentence generator. When WIRED chatted with Goostman through his programmers’ Princeton website, the results felt something like an AIM chatbot circa 1999.

WIRED: Where are you from?
Goostman: A big Ukrainian city called Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea

WIRED: Oh, I’m from the Ukraine. Have you ever been there?
Goostman: ukraine? I’ve never there. But I do suspect that these crappy robots from the Great Robots Cabal will try to defeat this nice place too.

The version on the website could of course be a different version than was used during the competition.

This particular chatbox almost passed a version of the Turing test two years ago, fooling judges approximately 29 percent of the time.

Fooling around 30 percent of the judges also doesn’t seem like a particularly high bar. While the group claims that no previous computer program has been able to reach this level, there have been numerous chatbots, some as far back as the 1960s, which were able to fool people for at least a short while. In a 1991 competition, a bot called PC Therapist was able to get five out of 10 judges to believe it was human. More recently, there have been fears that online chatbots could trick people into falling in love with them, stealing their personal information in the process. And a 2011 demonstration had a program named Cleverbot manage a Turing Test pass rate of nearly 60 percent.

Anders Sandberg, meanwhile, links to a blog post of his, “Eugene the Turing test-beating teenbot reveals more about humans than computers”. He suggests that the appeal of the Turing test lies in human incapacity to discern actual intelligence.

Why do we fall for it so easily? It might simply be that we have evolved with an inbuilt folk psychology that makes us believe that agents think, are conscious, make moral decisions and have free will. Philosophers will happily argue that these things do not necessarily imply each other, but experiments show that people tend to think that if something is conscious it will be morally responsible (even if it is a deterministic robot).

It is hard to conceive of a human-like agent without consciousness but with moral agency, so we tend to ascribe agency and free will to anything that looks conscious. It might just be the presence of eyes, or an ability to talk back, or any other tricks of human-likeness.

So Eugene’s success in the Turing test may tell us more about how weak we humans are when it comes to detecting intelligence and agency in conversation than about how smart our machines are.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 11, 2014 at 11:05 pm

[PHOTO] Inside the atrium of the MaRS Discovery Centre

Inside the atrium of the MaRS Discovery Centre

I explored inside the beautiful glass-walled atrium of the MaRS Discovery District‘s centrepiece tower, on the southeast corner of College and University next to the hospitals and academic institutions, on Doors Open this year. A planned centrepiece for academic-business science interactions, as The Globe and Mail‘s Kelly Grant notes the space has become a major election issue.

A few weeks before the tumult at Toronto’s MaRS centre exploded into public view, Ryerson University approached the Liberal government with a request: Was there anything the province could do about the lease rates at the MaRS tower, the gleaming monument to innovation sitting near-empty across from Queen’s Park?

Ryerson’s science department was searching for 25,000 square feet of specialized lab space near its Yonge and Dundas campus, making the tower, known as MaRS phase II, an ideal fit. But the school couldn’t afford to move there.

“The cost structure of MaRS was going to be very challenging,” Julia Hanigsberg, the vice-president of administration and finance at Ryerson, said. “If it was challenging for a university, it was obviously going to be very challenging for a start-up.”

Ms. Hanigsberg was told the government was working on the issue, but what she didn’t know at the time was the Liberals were quietly preparing a $317-million bailout of the MaRS tower, which, unable to lure enough tenants, was in danger of defaulting on the $235-million government loan that had made the innovation centre’s second phase possible.

Now, with another election looming, the Liberals are under fire for extending the loan in the first place, and for proposing in secret a plan to purchase the MaRS tower, buy out an American developer’s remaining interest in the project, and convert at least 10 floors of the tower to office space for bureaucrats.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 11, 2014 at 2:20 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • At the Cranky Sociologists, SocProf notes the militarization of policing in the United States.
  • The Dragon’s Tales updates us on fighting in the east of Ukraine.
  • The Everyday Sociology Blog’s Jonathan Wynn notes the quiet potential for controversy over representations of non-traditional gender and sexual orientation.
  • Far Outliers discovers the first American official graves in Japan (dating from the mid-19th century, in Hakodate) and the first Japanese official graves in the United States (dating from the late 19th century, in Hawaii).
  • At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley links to his analysis of what a war between China and the United States would look like. It would be costly for both, though perhaps more for the Americans.
  • Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen observes the extreme dependence of the economy of Afghanistan on war-related subsidies.
  • Torontoist’s Desmond Cole makes the case that affordable housing is a major but unexplored issue in this election.
  • Towleroad notes the racism expressed by the “Mr. Gay May” selected by Têtu magazine in France.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy notes the latest developments in the libel case brought by global warming scientist Michael Mann against Mark Steyn.

[LINK] “Advocating Pill, U.S. Signals Shift to Prevent AIDS”

Donald G. McNeil’s article in the New York Times about the prophylactic use of the anti-HIV drug Truvada to prevent HIV infections, as a supplement or even a replacement for condom use, got a lot of attention. Deservedly so: this could change the dynamics of HIV in queer communities substantially.

Federal health officials recommended Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of Americans at risk for AIDS take a daily pill that has been shown to prevent infection with the virus that causes it.

If broadly followed, the advice could transform AIDS prevention in the United States — from reliance on condoms, which are effective but unpopular with many men, to a regimen that relies on an antiretroviral drug.

It would mean a 50-fold increase in the number of prescriptions for the drug, Truvada — to 500,000 a year from fewer than 10,000. The drug costs $13,000 a year, and most insurers already cover it.

The guidelines tell doctors to consider the drug regimen, called PrEP, for pre-exposure prophylaxis, for gay men who have sex without condoms; heterosexuals with high-risk partners such as drug injectors or male bisexuals who have unprotected sex; patients who regularly have sex with anyone they know is infected; and anyone who shares needles or injects drugs.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have long been frustrated that the number of H.I.V. infections in the United States has barely changed in a decade, stubbornly holding at 50,000 a year, despite 30 years of official advice to rely on condoms to block transmission.

Although there is no guarantee that gay men will adopt the drug regimen, federal officials say something must be done because condom use is going down. In a C.D.C. survey in November, the number of gay men reporting recent unprotected sex rose nearly 20 percent from 2005 to 2011.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 20, 2014 at 8:44 pm

[LINK] “Life and death in Chernobyl’s ghost forest”

Mitch Potter‘s Toronto Star article taking a look at the environmental after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster starts with the famously irradiated Red Forest. It turns out that the fungal and microbial life here, in the zone most heavily effected by fallout, has been so badly devastated that trees and their litter simply don’t decay.

Very few people understand the radioactive afterglow of Chernobyl as well as Canadian scientist Tim Mousseau, who has dedicated 15 years to unravelling the ecological and evolutionary consequences of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe.

But for all the impacts he has seen in his more than 30 field trips to Ukraine since 1991, none was so eerie as his close-up encounter with the ghost forest of dead trees that lingers to this day inside the radioactive no-go zone north of Kyiv.

“We were trudging through the Red Forest, the area most heavily contaminated. And we noticed that many of these trees — trees that were killed in the initial blast in 1986 — were sitting there relatively intact,” says Mousseau.

“You squeezed them and they were hard. Trees that died that many years ago, they should be mostly sawdust. They shouldn’t exist. But they do.”

Something else struck him as strange — the leaf litter underfoot was thick. As much as three times thicker than in less-contaminated areas of Chernobyl’s 2,500-square-kilometre exclusion zone. “It was like walking on mattresses,” he says.

[. . ]

After the first year, the leaves in areas with no radiation were 70 to 90 per cent gone. Those nearest the hot zone were still about 60 per cent intact by weight. Moreover, microbes and fungi appeared to make the difference. They, and not insects, played the bigger role in breaking down the leaves and returning nutrients to the soil — and radiation, the study shows, is interrupting the process.

“We were just overwhelmed by the magnitude of the (radiation) effect,” Mousseau said.

“We’re trained to be skeptics and so when you walk through these areas, in the back of your mind you tend to doubt what appears to be obvious but may or may not be the reality. And so we were very surprised at how strong a signal came through.

“When we did the analysis we said, ‘Oh my God. This is huge.’”

This is another entry in the long-standing debate about the long-term effects of the disaster. Some have suggested that Chernobyl, for all its damage, is actually attractive to wildlife, as a place where they can reproduce without worrying about humans. Others suggest that it’s actually a place where wildlife encounter worse conditions, that animal populations would die out if new animals didn’t come in. Is the irradiated zone in Chernobyl a source of new wildlife or a sink for existing wildlife, or perhaps simply an ecological trap where animals cope but not very well? Potter’s article looks at it thoroughly.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 20, 2014 at 1:50 am

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