Challenges facing Artificial Intelligence

Technology is changing quickly, especially in the area of artificial intelligence. In 1985, Garry Kasparov defeated 32 different chess computers simultaneously. In 1997, Garry Kasparov lost to IBM’s chess computer Deep Blue in Game 6. This could be considered the tipping point, where computer programs became better than humans at some difficult tasks.

By 2011, IBM once again shocked the world, when their Watson computer defeated former champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! in two televised matches.

Fast forward once again to 2016, where Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo artificial intelligence program defeated 18-time world champion 9-dan Go master Lee Sedol, by winning 4 of 5 games, a feat previously judged to be at least a decade away.

Lee Sedol plays game three in his match against Google's AlphaGo artificial intelligence program
Lee Sedol plays game three in his match against Google’s AlphaGo program

Tay’s failure in artificial intelligence

Then there was Microsoft’s Tay artificial intelligence. Microsoft launched a chat bot, which would respond to input from users on Twitter. They shut down Tay within 24 hours, having become as The Verge reports “a racist asshole”. Why did this experiment go so badly?

The Tay AI chatbot artificial intelligence was quickly shut down
Microsoft shut down Tay, and the account remains protected.

The earlier examples of artificial intelligence all involve controlled environments. Deep Blue and AlphaGo work entirely within the rules of the game board, and contain virtually no social interaction. Watson was able to respond to input through a rule-based system that created a question by mining data from static data sets. As for Tay, this artificial intelligence was released not just to the internet at large, but to Twitter in particular. Tay was unprepared for a completely unstructured and uncontrolled environment.

Twitter as an uncontrolled environment

I use Twitter myself ( @maplemuse ). While twitter can be good for sharing information, it’s also home to considerably darker elements. Twitter is a free exchange marketplace for ideas, but as noble an idea as that sounds, not all the ideas are… appropriate for polite company. Microsoft claims that this was a “a coordinated attack by a subset of people”. They just don’t understand Twitter.

There are a few fundamental problems with Microsoft’s approach. They completely failed to impose rudimentary controls over the environment, and take into account “rogue actors” who would find this a fun challenge. Secondly, this seems to have been an open-ended project without a clear product goal. The earlier programs tested progress against clearly defined and measurable goals.

It seems like the answer to Microsoft’s classic slogan “Where do you want to go today?” was something Hunter S. Thompson wrote.

Twitter is bat country!
Twitter is bat country!

The Turing Test and Eliza

Clearly, Microsoft was reaching towards passing the classic Turing test, whereby a human conversing with an artificial intelligence or computer program would be unable to determine whether they were talking to a program, or to another human. Having a conversational program hearkens back to Eliza, a software chat program written at the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab back in the mid 1960s. Eliza parrots back statements as questions, mimicking the style of  psychotherapy.

While it remains unclear how much of Tay was mimicry, and how much was artificial intelligence and rule processing, it is quite clear that no company will release a conversation AI directly onto Twitter ever again.



Star Trek Beyond: A mostly non-spoilerish review

I don’t normally get out to see movies in theatres these days, except for two cases: the film is aimed at kids, or it’s either Star Trek or Star Wars. I’m kind of predictable that way. Well, a new Star Trek movie has hit theatres, and I got a chance to see one of the 3D showings. With Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin at the helm, did this still feel like Trek? Read on to find more. The only spoilers refer to the official trailers.

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Waterloo Region Industrial Redevelopment

I’ve now worked in the high-tech industry in Waterloo Region for over fifteen years now. I’ve worked for companies that were small, and just starting out, to some of the larger tech companies in the region, as well as the world.

Waterloo region used to have a strong industrial base, but over the years, manufacturing has moved overseas. With this shift in manufacturing, some unique properties have gone into disuse.

Among the redeveloped builds that I’ve had the opportunity to work in include 72 Victoria St, which started renovations back in 2000, 151 Charles Street, also known as the Tannery, and now 51 Breithaupt St, also known as the Breithaupt Block.

Instead of the sterile drywall and ceiling tiles in other office buildings, these buildings all featured open beam and brick construction. The character and history of the building are open to view. There is something very comforting about being able to look up to see the structure of wooden beam rafters above me, or to see a wall of old brick.

A brick wall in the Breithaupt Block building in Waterloo region
A brick wall in the Breithaupt Block building in Kitchener. It’s unique. Not every “brick in the wall” is the same. They have a character that more modern buildings cover up.

It’s interesting to see how the region has grown over the past twenty years, and how the downturn in manufacturing has changed to a rise in information technology companies. Looking at the construction of the LRT in the region, it’s easy to get annoyed at the traffic problems it’s causing. Getting from one side of King Street to the other side isn’t as easy today as it was before the construction started.

There are still derelict buildings in the downtown core, and others, such as the Mayfair Hotel, which have been torn down due to structural integrity problems. Some of these buildings, such as the Rumpel Felt building (constructed in 1913, with additions in 1942, 1961, and 1968) have been vacant for nearly a decade. The Rumpel Felt building closed in 2007.

A view of the Rumpel Felt building, a brick industrial building in downtown Kitchener
The Rumpel Felt building is a now vacant industrial building in downtown Kitchener

Others, like the MacIntosh Dry Cleaners, have closed more recently, within the past year.

The Macintosh Dry Cleaners was a family run dry cleaning business operating in Kitchener since 1934 for 81 years, but has closed in 2015 due to lack of business.

The fundamental dynamics of the region have changed. While we are no longer an industrial city, we still have a strong industrial heritage. Redevelopment plans don’t need to include tearing down these older buildings. Redevelopment of existing buildings maintains a connection to the history of the region, as well as providing a creative place to work.

This has been a successful strategy as well, with the tech hub at Communitech, the University of Waterloo’s Velocity incubator, and a number of great startups like Vidyard, and D2L in the region.

Star Wars: Jedi, Racism, and the Force Awakens

Three trailers have now dropped for the upcoming Star Wars film, and there has been some controversy about racial politics, with some “fans” threatening a boycott because one of the main characters is black. Boo hoo hoo. It’s about time that we see the racial diversity of the films expanded to a primary cast member. Sure, Lando Calrissian was black, but he’s very much a supporting cast member.

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The Dandelion Perspective

Where I see a field of green marred by malignant yellow weeds, my daughters see flowers growing in the meadow.

A bouquet of flowers, or of weeds?
A bouquet of flowers, or of weeds?

I’ve told them they’re allowed to pick as many dandelions from the lawn as they like. Like many things they do, their enthusiasm is endearing. Their perspective on the problem is limited to what they can see: a flower.

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First aid

For two days, I’ve watched videos featuring bloodshed, knife attacks, punctured lungs, objects embedded in eyes, and amputations. This wasn’t a slasher film marathon, but first aid training.

I’ve had first aid training many times over the years, probably starting with some training with Scouts Canada. First aid skills were far more likely to be required in scouting than in today’s modern office environment, but as the Scouts motto said: Be Prepared. So once again, I took the first aid, CPR and AED training.

Small hand injury
The real extent of injuries expected in my workplace

The training materials have changed over the years, most clearly showing the change are the instructional videos. The production quality has dramatically improved. They’re quite effective at showing the first aid techniques, and in drilling the basic components of giving first aid, such as assessing vital signs. They’re also obviously not likely to win any acting awards. While the makeup is quite realistic, showing increasingly pale and sweaty skin for those suffering from shock, and perhaps more closeups on the injuries than is entirely comfortable, all the actors remain remarkably calm during all the scenarios.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for instructional videos. The focus is appropriately placed on the treatment of injuries, rather than on the reactions of those involved. This is likely more effective for training purposes, than a more realistic response.

There are also a few amusing moments in the videos, in particular when they show the first upper arm open fracture. The casualty in question is in a stable with a small pony named Killer, as seen on a sign outside the stall. It’s a small touch, appreciated by this audience. Most amusingly, the pony is far shorter than the casualty’s arms. In truth, having some humour in the material seems to be pretty important, especially when dealing with painful subject matter.

There are also a series of skits involving a construction site. In the last video involving the construction site, the workers create their own triangular bandage to form an arm sling out of other materials. It serves a good purpose in reminding the audience that you can make do with whatever you have access to, but it also raises questions about the safety of this fake construction site, if they’ve exhausted their supply of triangular bandages. Surely the Ministry of Labour would have shut the site down.

My hope, as always, is that the training remains unused and unneeded. But in the case of a freak espresso machine accident, I once again stand prepared to assist.

Lest we forget our freedom

On November 11th, 1918, in a train carriage outside Compiègne, France, an Armistice was signed, bringing an end to the war between Germany and the Allies, to be ratified January 10th, 1920 in the Treaty of Versailles. For 4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks before, 16 million people died, with another 20 million people wounded in battle.

Poppies in a field.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
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