Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Software self analysis again

Perhaps a better example for the consciousness post  would have been to allow the application on the operating system to have access to the source code for the hypervisor two levels down. That way, the app could decide to change the virtualization of CPUs or the contention algorithms on the virtualized network interfaces and bootstrap itself a new hypervisor to host its own OS.

The question naturally arises, what scope has an app - or an OS - got for detecting that it is on a hypervisor rather than real hardware? If the emulation is indistinguishable, you cannot tell - by definition. At which point the emulated thing and the thing emulated have become indistinguishable. At which point you have artificially re-created that thing.

This is all well worn territory in the strong Vs weak AI conversations of course.

My favorite way of thinking about it is this:

1 - we don't understand consciousness and thus we cannot be sure we won't re-create it by happenstance, as we muck about with making computers act more intelligently.

2 - If we do create it, we likely won't know how we did it (especially since it is likely to be a gradual, multi-step thing rather than a big-bang thing)

3 - because we won't know what we did to create it, we won't know how to undo it or switch it off

4 - if it improves by iteration and it iterates a lot faster in silicon than we do in carbon, we could find ourselves a distant second in the earth-based intelligence ranking table rather quickly :-)

Best if we run all the electrical generation on the planet with analog methods and vacuum tubes so that we can at least starve it of electricity if push comes to shove:-)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

English as an API

Like the last post, this I am filing under "speculative"

Chat bots strip away visual UI elements in favor of natural language in a good old fashioned text box.

Seems kind of retro but, perhaps something deeper is afoot. For the longest time, we have used the phrase "getting applications to talk to each other" as a sort of business-level way of saying, "get applications to understand each others APIs and/or data structures."

Perhaps, natural language - or a controlled version of natural language - will soon become a viable way of getting applications to talk to each other. I.e. chatbots chatting with other chatbots, by sending/receiving English.

One of the big practical upshots of that - if it transpires - is that non-programmers will have a new technique for wiring up disparate applications. I.e. talk to each of them via their chat interface, then gradually get them talking to each other...


The surprising role of cloud computing in the understanding of consciousness

I am filing this one under "extremely speculative".

I think it was Douglas Hofstadter's book "I am a strange loop" that first got me thinking about the the possible roles of recursion and self-reference in understanding consciousness.

Today - for no good reason - it occurred to me that if the Radical Plasticity Theory is correct, to emulate/re-create consciousness[1] we need to create the conditions for consciousness to arise. Doing that requires arranging a computing system that can observe every aspect of itself in operation.

For most of the history of computing, we have had a layer of stuff that the software could only be dimly aware of, called the hardware.

With virtualization and cloud computing, more and more of that hardware layer is becoming, itself, software and thus, in principle, open to fine grained examination by the software running on....the software, if you see what I mean.

To take an extreme example, a unix application could today be written that introspects itself, concludes that the kernel scheduler logic should be changed, writes out the modified source code for the new kernel, re-compiles it, boots a Unix OS image based on it, and transplant itself into a process on this new kernel.


[1] Emulation versus re-creation of consciousness. Not going there.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The subtle complexities of legal/contractual ambiguity

The law is not a set of simple rules and the rule of law is not - and arguably cannot -be reduced to a Turing Machine evaluating some formal expression of said rules.

A theme of mine for some time has been how dangerous it is to junp to conclusions about the extent to which the process of law - and its expression in the laws themselves  - can be looked upon purely in terms of a deductive logic system in disguise.

Laws, contracts etc. often contain ambiguities that are there on purpose. Some are tactical. Some are there in recognition of the reality that concepts like "fairness" and "reasonable efforts" are both useful and unquantifiable.

In short there are tactical, social and deep jurisprudence-related reasons for the presence ambiguity in laws/contracts.

Trying to remove them can lead to unpleasant results.

Case in point : the draining of millions of dollars from the DAO. See writeup on Bloomberg : Ethereum Smart Contracts

Friday, June 17, 2016

25 years if the Internet in Ireland - a personal recollection of the early days

So today is the Internets 25th anniversary in Ireland.
In 1991 I was working with a financial trading company, developing technical analysis software for financial futures traders in 8086 assembly language and C using PCs equipped with TMS34010 graphics boards.

I cannot remember how exactly...possible through the Unix Users Group I ended up getting a 4800 KBS modem connection to a Usenet feed from Trinity via the SLIP protocol.

Every day I would dial up and download comp.text.sgml from Usenet onto my Sun Roadrunner X86 "workstation".

Not long thereafter, Ireland Online happened and I was then dialling up Furbo in the Gaeltacht of Connemara because it was the first access point to the WWW in Ireland.

I ditched my compuserv e-mail account not long after and became on comp.text.sgml

So much has changed since those early days...and yet so much as stayed the same.

Friday, May 20, 2016

From textual authority to interpretive authority: the next big shift in legal and regulatory informatics

This paper : law and algorithms in the public domain from a journal on applied ethics is representative, I think, of the thought processes going on around the world at present regarding machine intelligence and what it means for law/regulation.

It seems to me that there has been a significant uptick in people from diverse science/philosophy backgrounds taking an interest in the world of law. These folks range from epistemologists to bioinformaticians to statisticians to network engineers. Many of them are looking at law/regulation through the eyes of digital computing and asking, basically, "Is law/regulation computation?" and also "If it is not currently computation, can it be? Will it be? Should it be?"

These are great, great questions. We have a long way to go yet in answering them. Much of the world of law and the world of IT is separated by a big chasm of mutual mis-understanding at present. Many law folk - with some notable exceptions - do not have a deep grasp of computing and many computing folk - with some notable exceptions - do not have a deep grasp of law.

Computers are everywhere in the world of law, but to date, they have primarily been wielded as document management/search&retrieval tools. In this domain, they have been phenomenally successful. To the point where significant textual authority has now transferred to digital modalities from paper.

Those books of caselaw and statute and so on, on the shelves, in the offices. They rarely move from the shelves. For much practical, day-to-day activity, the digital instantiations of these legislative artifiacts are normative and considered authoritative by practitioners. How often these days to legal researchers go back to the paper-normative books? Is it even possible anymore in a world where more and more paper publication is being replaced by cradle-to-grave digital media? If the practitioners and the regulators and the courts are all circling around a set of digital artifacts, does it matter any more if the digital artifact is identical to the paper one?

Authority is a funny thing. It is mostly a social construct.  I wrote about this some years ago here: Would the real, authentic copy of the document please stand up?  If the majority involved in the world of law/regulation use digital information resource X even though strictly speaking X is a "best efforts facsimile" of paper information resource Y, then X has de-facto authority even though it is not de-jure authoritative. (The fact that de-jure texts are often replaced by de facto texts in the world of jure - law! - is a self-reference that will likely appeal to anyone who has read The Paradox of Self Amendment by Peter Suber.

We are very close to being at the point with digital resources in law/regulation have authority for expression but it is a different kettle of fish completely to have expression authority compared to interpretive authority.

It is in this chasm between authority of expression and authority of interpretation that most of the mutual misunderstandings between law and computing will sit in the years ahead I think. On one hand, law folk will be too quick to dismiss what the machines can do in the interpretive space and IT people will be too quick to think the machines can quickly take over the interpretive space.

The truth - as ever - is somewhere in between. Nobody knows yet where the dividing line is but the IT people are sure to move the line from where it currently is (in legal "expression" space) to a new location (in legal "interpretation" space).

The IT people will be asking the hard questions of the world of law going forward. Is this just computing in different clothing? If so, then lets make it a computing domain. If it is not one today, then can we make it one tomorrow? If it cannot be turned into a computing domain - or should not be - then why, exactly?

The "why" question here will cause the most discussion. "Just because!", will not cut it as an answer. "That is not what we do around here young man!" will not cut it either. "You IT people just don't understand and can't understand because you are not qualified!", will not cut it either.

Other domains - medicine for example - have gone through this already. Medical practitioners are not algorithms or machines but they have for the most part divested various activities to the machines. Not just expressive (document management/research) but also interpretive (testing,  hypothesis generation, outcome simulation).

Law is clearly on this journey now and should emerge in better shape, but the road ahead is not straight, has quite a few bumps and a few dead ends too.

Strap yourself in.

Monday, May 16, 2016

From BSOD to UOD

I don't get many "Blue Screen of Death" type events these days : In any of the Ubuntu, Android, iOS, Window environments I interact with. Certainly not like the good old days when rebooting every couple of hours felt normal. (I used to keep my foot touching the side of my deskside machine. The vibrations of the hard disk used to be a good indicator of life back in the good old days. Betcha that health monitor wasn't considered in the move to SSDs. Nothing even to listen too these days, never mind touch.)

I do get Updates of Death though - and these are nasty critters!

For example, your machine auto-updates and disables the network connection leaving you unable to get at the fix you just found online....