Friday, January 28, 2011

The Origins of Artificial Intelligence in English Romantic Poetry

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Ada Byron, daughter of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron is – arguably --the world's first computer programmer. She is otherwise known to history as Lady Lovelace. The case on her behalf is so strong that the Department of Defense developed a programming language in her honor: ADA. It was among the first so-called "Object-Oriented Languages," a set of languages dominated by C++, Java, etc. But that gets ahead of the story by some one hundred years or more.

Ada Byron was born in 1815. Divorced from Lord Byron, Lady Byron brought up her daughter, Ada, fearful that she might suffer Romanticist, "poetical" tendencies as did her father. Her education, therefore, consisted of mathematics and science. Predictably, Ada's understanding of mathematics –though profound –was influenced by simile, analogy, and metaphor.

It is not surprising that Ada was fascinated and intrigued when, in 1834, she encountered Charles Babbage's idea for a "calculating machine" about which Babbage offered a daring conjecture: a machine acting upon foresight.
Most of what we know of Babbage's "differential engine" we have learned from Ada Byron. Inspired by the "universality" of Babbage's ideas, Ada proceeded to write more notes on Babbage than Babbage wrote at all. Her fascination with Babbage's "engine" is noteworthy for at least two outstanding developments.

It was Ada, inspired by Babbage's calculating machine, who first articulated, if not invented, the very concept of "software" –a set of instructions to be carried out by a "universal" machine – a machine capable of acting meaningfully upon those instructions. The obvious progeny of this concept is the multitude of software packages that now drive everything from desktops to mainframes.

Of even greater interest to physicists and cosmologists is that Ada's ideas and hopes for the 'computing machine' lead inexorably to Claude Shannon's concept of information as the inverse of entropy – a western version of the yin and yang. Entropy is or is associated with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a general principle constraining the 'direction' of 'heat transfer'; in the vernacular: things run down. Chaos increases. Organization becomes dis-organization and disorder. Hot things cool down in the absence of new infusions of energy. Eventually all movement ceases entirely. Some have called it the 'heat death' of the Universe –a final and eternal 'thermodynamic state' in which there no longer exists sufficient 'free energy' to sustain motion or life.

Shannon then spent 31 years at Bell Labs, starting in 1941. Among the many things Shannon worked on there, one great conceptual leap stands out. In 1948, Shannon published "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" in the Bell System Technical Journal, along with Warren Weaver. This surprisingly readable (for a technical paper) document is the basis for what we now call information theory--a field that has made all modern electronic communications possible, and could lead to astounding insights about the physical world and ourselves.

Names like Einstein, Heisenberg, or even Kurt Goedel are better known among the people who have led twentieth-century science into the limits of knowledge, but Shannon's information theory makes him at least as important as they were, if not as famous. Yet when he started out, his simple goal was just to find a way to clear up noisy telephone connections.

--Heroes of Cyberspace; Claude Shannon
Shannon wrote A Mathematical Theory of Communication [PDF] for Bell Labs in 1948 –more than a hundred years after Ada wrote what is considered to be the world's first computer program, a plan that she shared with Babbage. In it, Ada suggested how his machine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This was the world's first computer program.

The second development began the debate about Artificial Intelligence. In his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Alan Turing, devoted several paragraphs to "Lady Lovelace's Objection" to the very concept of A.I. It was a concept which Ada discounted in her notes:
The analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to [do]. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any...truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we're already acquainted with.
Some 100 years later Turing ascribes to her a cautious "logical positivism:"
It will be noticed that he [ D. R. Hartree ] does not assert that the machines in question had not got the property [ A.I.], but rather that the evidence available to Lady Lovelace did not encourage her to believe that they had it.
The point is not whether Lady Lovelace or Turing is correct with regard to A.I., but rather that it was Ada who foresaw the playing field and terrain, the scope of the debate. It was Turing, however, who defined 'artificial intelligence'. By his definition, computers have already achieved consciousness. Turing had said that we may consider a machine intelligent if, in a blind test, we cannot differentiate the computer's response from that of a living, breathing person. By that standard, computers are now conscious and intelligent. IBM's 'Big Blue' defeated Chess champion Boris Spasky who charged that human beings had directed the machine. I often share that attitude with my own computer's chess program. It actually seems to learn from its mistakes.

Ada understood that the meaning of a machine is what it does. Her contribution is that this meaning may be shaped by what are now call 'programmers' who literally instruct the machine, providing it a well-planned list of discrete tasks, a program –in other words: software.

Computer technologists speak of "state". Each state is particular, analogous in some way, to a particular task that may be accomplished while in that "state." Before computers, machines may have processed information –but in a crude way. The instructions had been built-in. Consider the lever –a simple machine that nevertheless may be said to have two "states" –up or down. The meaning of either state is to be found in the work done by (or in) that state. As a general principle, the meaning of a given state is the utility it creates, the work that it does.

In Ada's wake, early computers were mere assemblages of electrically controlled "levers" called "relays." The origin of binary languages may be found in relays which are either 'on' or 'off' . Mechanical relays would be replaced by vacuum tubes and, later, by transistors. Simple circuits were called either "and-gates," or "or-gates", or, generally –'flip/flop' circuits. Even now, the largest supercomputers, reduced to their smallest components, are capable only of processing just two states: 0 and 1. But upon this basic alphabet, patterns of increasing complexity have grown exponentially. The computer has become an electronic loom in which each pattern represents a "state."

That Ada glimpsed this future almost a century and a half ago is remarkable.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Declaration of Class Warfare

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

When I started following the flow of wealth upward, the top 10 percent already owned more than the rest of us combined. Now --the 'ruling' one percent owns and/or controls more wealth than is owned by the rest of us combined. Enron was not an aberration. Enron's crime was not only that of putting the screws to California; Enron's crime was 'getting caught'. The sell out to China by Nixon/Bush was not an aberration; it was, like Enron, a part of the game plan. It is no accident that China props up the buck but only because and when it is in their interests to do so. Lately, China, it is said, is reconsidering its 'bargain' with Satan.

Monied interests control our daily lives in ways that we have not fully understood. We need dollars to buy not just 'luxury items' but essentials --housing, food, transportation. But, as a result of Nixon's Faustian bargain with China, our dollars are worth less (worthless?).

In the meantime, the ruling elites own the media that we watch. That's worth repeating: the elites --about a half-dozen huge corporations --own the media! Thanks to the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the media was relieved of its responsibility to serve public interests. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine was trashed, limits on corporate ownership rescinded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan primarily, the corporate media have no other job but to serve up lies and bullshit and tell you what to think! Fox is but the most obvious and repugnant example, but, in fact, no other outlet is, in any way, encouraged to be factual, fair, or responsible. The 'public interest' is considered to be 'quaint'.
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you.

Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

--Newton Minow, Upon his Appointment to the FCC by President John F. Kennedy
But this article is not solely about the media but about how the ruling 'elites' own and control K-Street and, hence, the government of the United States. It is about how the media is but a means by which the 'people' --you and I --are, in fact, ruled and manipulated. The elites own not only the media but the Military/Industrial complex! They are the sole beneficiaries of wars for which 'we the people' are expected to sacrifice both our lives and our lifestyles. Wars are fought entirely for the benefit of of this ruling elite. Bobby Darin's 'Simple Song of Freedom' nailed it: "....we the people here don't want a war!" Anyone not a member of the elite are cannon fodder.

Every major economist from the conservative Adam Smith to Karl Marx, from Ricardo to Krugman concedes: 'wealth' is created by labor. Ergo: wealth flows upward --never down as the GOP would have you believe. Supply-side ecnomics (trickle down theory) was clearly designed to fool a gullible public. It is nothing more than a disingenuous rationalization, in fact, a bald-faced lie! Understanding this reality explains why no GOP tax cut has ever benefited the U.S. economy. It also explains why, in fact, every GOP administration is defined by the recession/depression that inevitably catches up with them. It is a credit to the great and awesome GOP noise, bullshit and propaganda machine [NBPM] that any intelligent person in the United States should buy into 'supply-side economics', otherwise called 'trickled down theory'.

It is interesting that while 'labor' creates wealth, it is the 'ruling elite' which --alone --benefits! Only the word slavery can describe an absurd upside-down, through-the-looking-glass world in which the rich have acquired the political power required to grant themselves 'largesse' --tax cuts and lucrative contracts!

A perfectly egalitarian society could get along just fine if there were perfect equality, i.,e if there were no rich folk whatever. I would put money on such a society being much more productive, happier, peaceful! Why are wars fought? Wars are fought to seize the resources of other nations and in almost every case the assets seized are distributed in various ways to the ruling elites who are most certainly the most vocal proponents of war. Rome is still the best analogy. Rome was often bankrupt! Rome invaded Dacia for its 'gold'! Why? Roman sesterces were worthless as a medium of exchange. As a mere token to facilitate a head-count, sesterces would get you into the Coliseum. It is doubtful that it was worth a load of bread. When the Praetorian Guard auctioned off the empire, it was purchased by a nobleman --Didius Julianus! He paid in Greek Drachmas --not the worthless roman 'currency'.

Who risks his/her life in wars abroad, wars which benefit only the ruling one percent? It is the poorer classes who are honored with front-line duties. It was those 'left behind' by GOP policies who were, in various ways, rounded up and sent to the front lines in Viet Nam and, more recently, Iraq! Because of the 'draft' --involuntary servitude --Viet Nam was especially troubling. Iraq is no less disturbing; because of a failing economy, recruiting was easy from among those left behind by the GOP and exploitative right wing policies in general. How many members of the 'ruling one percent' have been killed in Afghanistan and/or Iraq? I want names and numbers!

The very presence of elites distort markets. If there were no 'elites' the price of advertising would adjust to reality --a little thing called 'supply' and 'demand'. Basic economic concepts include 'elasticity' or 'inelasticity' of demand, concepts that describe the responsiveness of 'demand' to changes in price. The same concepts describe 'demand' for money, i.e, the effect of great wealth upon money markets. The demand for most necessities (food, medicine, basic clothing) is said to be ineleastic, i.e, people who are very sick, for example, will pay almost any price for relief or cure. The hungry will pay almost any price for food --if they should be lucky enough to have it.

For everyone but the very rich, this is true of money. For us, money is a necessity. Elites, however, increase their holdings most dramatically when the dollar is lowest vis a vis other world currencies. Thus, great wealth controls the world market for money. We are but pawns, monetary cannon-fodder, thrust into the front lines of the money wars. We plebs are but pawns who must inevitably take the fall for 'Queen and country'.

If there were no 'elites' to bid the prices up with their mere presence, ski resorts might enjoy a 'plebeian' clientele. But, because skiing is 'in' among jet setters, playboys and glamorous blondes, folk will spend absurd sums to ski in Aspen. These people are not better than you and I --just richer. I know at least one extremely wealthy health-club magnate drawn to Aspen like a bee to honey. He turned out to be, like many another rich asshole, a psychopath who left his wife, moved in with a hot 'honey' and when things did not go his way hired incompetent hit men who tried but (fortunately) failed to murder the intended victim, a beautiful blonde pageant winner. She recovered, changed her identity and, presumably left the country.

In fact, little would change but for those items in which the ultimate retail price is bid up by big money. But if there is no big money, the production and sale of 'goods' would simply find a new level, a new equilibrium. The elites have bid up prices unnecessarily and there is no evidence that there is or ever has been a rationale, a reason why this must be the case. It is often implied that this is just the way the world works, the 'way things are'! I don't think so! I often got into trouble as a high schooler for daring to ask: who sez?

In fact, many are priced out of markets. But why? What is the net gain to society as a whole? Some items that are prohibitively expensive to produce and/or market might go the way of the dodo unless they are absolutely essential to --say --national security! I don't think Beluga caviar qualifies.

I daresay --more egalitarian economies are the more efficient economies; inequitable economies much less so as inequities increase. In the U.S. the degree to which an economy is determined to be either egalitarian or skewed toward elites is measured by the GINI INDEX. I would urge a bright seeker of a doctorate in economics to make the case (in his/her paper) that in the U.S. the most egalitarian regimes are and have been the most productive as measured by the ratio of GINI to GDP. It is no coincidence that every major recession – at least –since WWII has occurred during and as a result of GOP economic/monetary policies, primarily Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush. Who did I leave out? It must be pointed out that every GOP administration since World War II has, likewise, run up the largest debts and deficits. On this point, it is the administration of Ronald Reagan that is the specimen that is typical of the GOP 'species' as a whole.

Recessions may not be defined by joblessness but are always characterized by it. Typical of the right wing, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter dismissed this result saying that the Great Depression (for example) was simply a 'good, cold douche' for the economy'. Douche! A 'douche', he called it! I don't buy that. I think his argument was and remains shallow and flippant and, rather, missed the point! Rather --recessions benefit only the investor class perhaps by design. It is hard not to conclude that they are manufactured so that the investor class can take its profits, sell short, and, in other ways, consolidate positions. We buy into this because, in America, it is all we've known. Face it ---we've all been brainwashed since birth!

The very, very rich benefit from what I call the 'Malibu Effect' defined by the ability of rich folk to 'price' poor folk 'out of a market'. For a long time, the houses on Malibu were nothing to write home about. Until, that is, the very rich discovered Malibu! Big money wasted no time bidding up the price of wood frames on stilts. You could have had the same house in Lazbuddy, TX for a song. But because it is 'in' or 'fashionable', the word MALIBU on your address is worth a lot of money ---wood frame or not!

But --what if there were fewer inequities in income and wealth? What if it were not possible for the absurdly rich to bid up prices absurdly? I can recall a time when 30 thousand bought you a two story, three or four bedroom, den, state of the art kitchen, two car garage with a lawn. Get an old B and W video of "Leave it to Beaver". Check out that house! These people were 'middle class'. Try getting a house like that on what is called a middle class income today!

It was in the late 60s that a distinguished economist (whose name I cannot recall) wrote that 'status symbols' were on the wane as income and wealth inequities declined. His words were written during the administration of LBJ. Perhaps Lyndon had created a 'great society' after all.

I am quite sure that as this economist was writing, the GOP base of elites were already scheming to change all that. Since that time, the GOP has succeeded in proving that they have the power to price you out of the market for many things that are not only desirable but often necessary. Why should the very wealthy be allowed to deny the middle and lower classes of access to health care, quality education, decent housing, transportation to jobs? Health care is often the battleground on which is waged this war between the classes! It is not enough that the elites can afford to get care and you cannot, the elites --by way of their control over both K-street, Wall Street and Congress --deny you what should be declared a universal, human right to 'universal health care'!

Yes, the S.S. Minnow from Gilligan's Island is being restored and will be available for tours. More than one boat was used on the show, but this is the one in the opening credits.

I have special affection for this boat because it was named after my father, Newton Minow, whose famous speech to the broadcasters calling television a "vast wasteland" annoyed "Gilligan's Island" creator Sherwood Schwartz. So Schwartz named the sinking boat after him! My dad got a huge kick out of it and later had a very cordial exchange of letters with Schwartz. It is a great point of pride for our family. [Read more]

Bobby Darin: A Simple Song of Freedom

Lost on Gilligan's Island