Monthly Archives: April 2017

Westworld – The Rise of Artificial Intelligence?

I recently  finished watching “Westworld”, an HBO television series based on the 1973 movie with the same title. Both were the story of a theme park filled with animatronic characters who interacted with the guests. The characters, called “hosts” were so advanced it was practically impossible to tell them from the human being “guests”. Without going too far into the plot line, this, in my opinion was an extraordinarily well-done science fiction story which seemed to be far too close to reality for comfort.

Sentience

The capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. It is the ability to feel (sentience) distinguished from the ability to think (reason)

Westworld isn’t the first movie to explore the notion of artificial inteligence running amuck.It started with Hal 9000, the  infamously intelligent computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odessy (1968).

hal 9000

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that…”

Since then there have been countless movies about computers and/or robots turning on humans. In some cases the robots were monstrous and evil (Terminator). There were action/adventure robots (I,Robot), creepy (Ex Machina), and the franky disturbing  A.I. Artificial Intellgence, by Steven Spielberg.

Artificial Intelligence

The standard definition of artificial intelligence (AI) is intelligence exhibited by machines. Generally, this is thought of as machines that imitate human cognative functions, such as problem solving.

The incredible recent advances have made AI an everyday experience. For example, search for something on Google. As you type in a few letters, suggestions begin to appear, as though Google is attempting to read your mind, and find out what you are looking for before you finish typing it. This is the common use of an algorithm, a self-contaned sequence of actions to be performed. In the Google search (predictive text or autocomplete). To fill in your search, Google analyizes the last 10,000 searches in your geographical area, your bookmarks, your recent searches, your web browsing history, and the patterns of your browsing and searches. In other words, Google carefully looks at your behaviors as you fill in that search box, returning suggestions before you can even type them. Scary? It probably should be, but we’ve grown so accustomed to it, we really don’t even think about it. This is artificial intelligence a machine, or in this case software solving problems for you.

google algorithym

Google searches are of course, commonplace today. We accept them as part of our normal lives. How about Siri or Alexa? We ask them questions, they give us answers. We’ve adapted to speaking to our phones and computer systems, or is it speaking “with”? When does that interaction between man and machine begin to get muddy? — meet Samantha:

So when does the computer beome “real” ? When is it more than a machine?

British code breaker  and inventor of the Enigma machine Alan Turing proposed a test (now known as the Turing Test),  which suggests that if a person communicates with a machine, and cannot tell if the communication is from another person or a machine, the test has been passed. To paraphase a line from Westworld when a “host” is asked if they are human or machine, the host replied, “If you can’t tell , what difference does it make”?

So, could computers and artificlal intelligence become self-aware? Could they become sentient? Far fetched, perhaps, but some pretty smart folks have some qualms.

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist often referred to as one of the smartest people in the world, told the BBC “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”(1)

Bill Gates seems to agree: “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence,” Gates wrote. “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”(2)

Tessla founder Elon Musk seems to suggest the same thing: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.” (2)

The question seems to be whether or not machines with AI can become conscious, or self-aware. Watch these tiny robots take a test:

“…It may seem pretty simple, but for robots, this is one of the hardest tests out there. It not only requires the AI to be able to listen to and understand a question, but also to hear its own voice and recognise that it’s distinct from the other robots. And then it needs to link that realisation back to the original question to come up with an answer.”

To find out how this little robot became self-aware, click link below:

Robot passes self-awareness test

Technological Singularity

This is the creation of an artifical superintelligence, one so sophisticated that it could become runaway, causing it’s own “intelligence explosion”, out of the control of it’s makers. The argument is that it is possible to build a machine that is more intelligent than man, and this machine begins to rebuild itself, literally writing it’s own software, growing more and more intelligent as it goes. A concept known as Moore’s law suggests that this is not only possible, but plausible and even likely over time.

Is this real, or just the stuff of vivid imaginations and screenwriters? Several of the people mentioned above are part of the Future of Humanity Institute, which seems to take these things seriously.

So maybe humans will be ruled by machines sometime in the future. Or maybe it’s just fun science fiction. Which brings us back to Hal:

 

Endnotes

1.Beware the Robots, Says Stephen Hawking

2. Bill Gates on Dangers of Artificial Intelligence — Washington Post

Future of Life Institute — Wikipedia

Technological Singularity

Artificial Intelligence — Wikipedia

Is Google tracking me?

Moore’s Law

 

But Will it Power a Kuerig?

 

kuerig

I happened to see an ad for an emergency generator on Amazon recently. For whatever reason, I scanned the listing for comments.  One person asked, what I suppose, is the pressing question of our modern times: “Will it power a Kuerig?”.

I thought about that for a minute:  A winter storm, a blizzard, power out everywhere. Hunkered down, hoping we don’t freeze to death with the heat off. What concerns me the most?  How can I get my Kuerig to work?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Kuerig thing is nifty; cute little cups that make just the right kind of coffee mixture you crave: Starbucks, Folger’s, Green Mountain. Whether its Nantucket Blend or Breakfast Blend, Hazelnut or Sumatran Reserve, it’s all in that little plastic cup. Pop it in the machine and you’re just seconds away from paradise. It’s just not my kind of coffee.

Coffee. I’m a serious coffee drinker, old school type. I started drinking coffee probably around the age of ten. I peaked in my twenties and thirties, when I was drinking a dozen or more cups a day. During my waking hours I was never without a cup of coffee. Back then, we made our coffee like this:

coffee-pot

This was called a percolator. Fill it with water, put coffee grinds in the basket inside, put the pot on a stove (or campfire for that matter), and heat the water. The water boiled, pushed up through the grinds, and like magic, coffee! The height of simplicity. No electric, no fancy gadgets, just coffee, water and heat. Coffee was, and still is a simple beverage. Basic. Fundamental. Just ask the old cowboys.

cowboys

Coffee was also cheap. For many many years a ten cent cup of coffee was standard in many diners. I remember a popular brand was Maxwell House, “Good to the very last drop” coffee. There were of course, other brands, but coffee was coffee. — Well apparently not.

In the late 1980’s, I met a woman from Seattle. She had come to New Jersey and brought her own coffee with her. She was the first “coffee snob” I ever met.  She would brew her coffee in her motel room and bring it to a restaurant in a thermos rather than drink the restaurant coffee.  She fussed and opined about the wonderful coffee in Seattle, and how backward we were in the rest of the country. I got to taste some of her wonder brew. It was good, but I didn’t see the fuss. I thought she was a bit of a snobby twit, and I think the coffee was Starbucks, which had not yet come East at that time.

The Coffee Shop

According to US News and World Report in a recent article, Americans pay an average of $2.70 for a cup of coffee in a coffee shop, leaving an average 20% tip ($.54), bringing the cost of that cup of coffee to $3.24. So what does that cup off coffee cost the retailer?

Coffee prices have varied over the years, largely due to trade agreements and growing conditions, but since 1976, the wholesale market price of coffee has remained between $.50 and $2.50 per pound. As of this writing, it is selling for $1.46 per pound on the commodities market. The mean price of coffee has been about $1.40  for forty years.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, one pound of coffee should yield 48 six ounce cups. Cutting that in half, we’ll suppose we can get 24 twelve ounce cups ( a Starbucks “tall”) from that pound. At the wholesale level, that’s a cost of about $.06 (six cents) per cup.

From the wholesaler, the coffee must go the the roaster, who roasts, packages, and ships the coffee to the distributor, bringing the cost per pound to around $3.00. Add in miscellaneous costs for loss, shrinkage,  other overhead, and profits, and we’re looking at about $6.00 per pound to the coffee shop retailer. That’s $.25, or twenty-five cents per cup.

Of course the coffee shop has lots of costs too; cream, sugar, the cup, napkins, and all the other overhead associated with running a retail business.  So if the coffee shop owner doubled his costs (100 percent markup), the coffee would cost the customer fifty cents per cup. If the shop tripled the cost, it would be seventy-five cents, quadrupled it, $1.00 per cup.

Which brings us to the average cost of $2.70 per 12 ounce cup. That’s a markup of almost 1100 percent!

Home Brew

The current price for our Maxwell House ” good to the last drop” coffee is running $6.00 – $8.00 per pound at the retail store. One pound of Starbucks coffee retail is about $15.00.

So let’s recap at this point. If I buy a pound of Maxwell House for, let’s say $7.00 per pound at Walmart and make it at home, it costs me about $.29 (twenty-nine cents) per cup. If I buy a pound of Starbucks and do the same thing, it’s about $.63 (sixty-three cents).

keurig-statbucksWhich brings us back to Keurig. In order to get a 12 ounce cup (keeping this apples to apples), you must buy the K-Mug pods. The price of these, from the Keurig website are about $14.00 per 12-pack. That makes the cost of your 12 ounce mug of coffee from the Keurig about $1.17 per cup. I couldn’t find Starbucks K-Mug size,  so we have to extrapolate a bit, making your 12 ounces of Starbucks K-Mug size about $1.76 per cup.

Before I go any further, let me stipulate to any coffee aficionados or “foodies” out there, I understand the “differences” in coffees — different types of beans, different growing areas, blends, etc. I get it. There is no need to tell me I’m comparing apples to oranges. People are willing to pay premium prices for all kinds of things, and if that is your desire, by all means, pursue it. I’m just painting with broad strokes here.

Here’s how I see the bottom line:

If I drink three cups of my $.25 per cup Maxwell House a day, that’s $.75/day or  $273.75 per year.

If you drink 3 cups of $1.76  Keurig Starbucks per day, that’s $5.28 per day or $1927.20 per year.

If you buy 3 cups per day in a coffee shop at the average price of $2.70 per cup, that’s $8.10 per day or $2956.50 per year.

Coffee sales in the United States alone are over $18 billion annually. Americans consume an incredible  400 million cups per day (half the population averages 3 cups/day).

Coffee prices are crazy, but some of the people who buy it are even crazier. A coffee shop in New York City recently opened selling “extraction” coffee (I don’t know what that is, and I don’t care) for as much as $18. per cup. (New York City, Most Expensive Cup of Coffee).  Some coffee aficionados are equating these coffee prices with the prices of craft beers, another overpriced commodity. Not to be outdone, Starbucks now has a “Reserve” coffee selling for around $7/cup.

“Starbucks, which introduced millions of people around the world to higher quality coffee and espresso drinks and now must find a way to avoid being labeled pedestrian when compared with upscale rivals like Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia, which are popping up in U.S. cities….” Yahoo News.

And so it goes. That ten cent “cup of Joe” is now a designer product, capable of being sold at extraordinary prices. Enjoy your Kuerig. You might want to consider purchasing a generator to power it if the electric goes off.

Notes:

USA Today – Price of a Cup of Coffee

 

Big Trouble in Little China

The world is holding it’s collective breath at the moment, courtesy of a pudgy, demented thirty-three year old with a bad haircut.

un

Kim Jong -un, son of Kim Jong- il, and grandson of Kim Il Sung, is the third psychopath in a line of psychopaths who have ruled North Korea since 1948.  Grandpop Sung started the Korean war in 1950, and the family has managed to stay in power and in the headlines around the world off and on ever since.

The 1953 cease-fire, creating North and South Korea allowed the South to become a vibrant world-class economy, while the North under the illustrious Kim family degenerated into a dark and dismal place.

Ostensibily Communist, North Korea is in reality a cult-state, with loyalty to the Kims a necessity for survival. The history of this family is mysterious, including indicators that the name was stolen from another family. That being said, the idiosyncracies of the family are well reported and can be found elsewhere. Our focus is on the current Kim, and why he matters.

Little is actually known in the West about Kim Jong-un. Little was seen of him publicly before his rise to power. Even his date of birth is not absolutely certain. Details of his early years are sketchy or kept secret. Rumors that he once attended Western schools under a pseudonym cannot be confirmed.  There are many reports of these stories and rumors which can be found elsewhere. He was declared the supreme leader of North Korea following the death of his father in 2011.

“…Kim holds the titles of Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Chairman of the National Defence Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army,[1] and presidium member of the Politburo Standing Committee of theWorkers’ Party of Korea.” 1

Since taking office, Kim reportedly has ordered the execution of several high ranking officials, including an uncle and likely a half-brother. It’s quite clear he will do anything to hold on to power.

Nuclear Weapons

North Korea began working on developing nuclear weapons in the 1980’s, under Kim Jong Il. In 1985 they agreed to participate in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weaons, but withdrew from the Treaty in 1993, after prohibiting United Nations inspections. Under President Bill Clinton, the United States tried to steer North Korea to peaceful uses of atomic energy; including  providing two light-water reactors to North Korea in return for an agreement they would not pursue weapons production. The wheels came off this cart when the Koreans gained access to Pakistan’s nuclear technology in the 1990’s. North Korea conducted the first test of a nuclear bomb in 2006.

The North Koreans tested a second nuclear weapon in 2009, larger than the first. In 2013, an even larger test was conducted. A test in 2016 may have been a hydrogen bomb, far more powerful than previous atomic weapons. During this same time, the North Koreans began developing and testing increasingly larger long-range missles. On September 9, 2016, they conducted the fifth and largest nuclear weapon test to date.

Throughout the period of North Korea’s recent nuclear development, the U.S. offered various “carrots” to North Korea in exchange for the agreement of the North Koreans to abandon their weapons program. The “carrots” included offers of oil and food. Years of talks with other interested countries including  the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan led nowhere. While there are lists and lists of the “objectives” achieved by diplomats, it is clear North Korea was simply using the talks as a cover while they continued to develop more and more powerful weapons.

Negotiations with North Korea have not worked. Sanctions by the U.S.  and United Nations and others have not worked. The clock is ticking, and the parties involved, and indeed much of the world, may be heading toward a precipice.

War

North Korean soldiers parade in front a portrait of former North Korean President Kim Il-sung during a military parade in Pyongyang's central square in this photo taken by Kyodo on September 9, 2011 marking the 63rd anniversary of the state's founding. REUTERS/Kyodo

North Korea has a formidable military, and they are not afraid to fight. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the North Koreans (with the help of the Chinese) fought the United States and United Nations allies to a standstill armistice in 1953. The UN Forces lost over 178,000 dead and 33,000 missing, along with over 450,000 wounded. Over 33,000 American troops were killed, and over 7,800 are still considered missing in action.The North Koreans/Chinese suffered over 367,000 dead and over 700,000 wounded. It is estimated over 2.5 million civilians were killed.

Today, the North Korean military is substantial. Over 700,000 frontline troops, 4200 main battle tanks, 4100 armored fighting vehicles, and 4300 artillery pieces account for some if it’s ground forces.

Its Air Force has 944 fighters and attack aircraft, along with over 200 helicopters. While North Korea has no aircraft carriers in it’s navy, it has over 70 submarines, a cause of great concern, expecially if they develop long range missle launching capabilities.

The bottom line is this: North Korea has a formidable military. They are not Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. It would be beyond foolish to think that the United States could “take them out” quickly or painlessly. Any conflict with North Korea would likely bring casualties in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, many of them American.

Strategies and approaches

There are few potential ways to approach the situation with North Korea, and frankly none of them are good.

North-and-South-Korea-Meeting

Diplomatic — This is the approach that has been tried for years to know avail. The United States and the United Nations have attempted to have “talks” with North Korea, and gone nowhere. The “carrots” of oil, food, and financial remuneration in an attempt to get the Kim government to play nice have not worked. Sanctions, mostly financial, have also not worked, often because North Korea was getting help on the side from such places as China and Iran. Years of talking and “negotiating” have all been one sided, with North Korea using the time to develop bigger and better weapons.

seals

Clandestine — One of the more far-fetched notions recently has been “decapitation”; the notion that we could sneak into North Korea and assassinate Kim Jung-un, and possibly his high ranking advisors. The rumor was even floated that Seal Team Six, the team responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden were training for the job. Kim isn’t hiding in a safe house near Islamabad, he is heavily guarded by fanatics. Any attempt to sneak in and kill him is more likely in a movie than real life. There could be an exception to this, however: the Chinese. It seems likely the Chinese have well-inflitrated the Kim regime with spies. It seems somewhat plausible that they could have the resources to get to Kim and eliminate him. That being said, it’s still a stretch of the imagination.

Pre-emptive strike (non nuclear) —

North Korea is approximately 120,000 square miles, about the size of Pennsylvania.  It has military bases scattered all over the country:

NORK Air Force bases(Click on picture for larger image)

The map above shows only North Korean air force bases. There are naval bases and scores of army bases, many at least partially underground and hidden in the mountains. Taking out these bases is not a simple matter of firing cruise missles, as in Syria. A non-nulcear pre-emptive strike would have to be massive, and the logistics of planning such a strike would telegraph the activity long before it could be used.

Pre-emptive strike (nuclear) —

The doomsday option. The U.S. could indeed strike North Korea using nuclear ICBM’s. Such a strike would allow North Korea no time to prepare, and no ability to respond. The country would be destroyed, with millions of casualities. This option would almost certainly open the door to World War III, with consequences no sane person would even want to contemplate.

The bottom line is that there are no good choices here. None, not one.

Kim-Trump

Full Circle

We come back again to Kim Jong-un, and more importantly the current standoff between he and President Donald Trump. The United States wants North Korea to abandon it’s nuclear weapons, and North Korea is indicating it is doing the opposite; developing bigger weapons and better delivery systems. Years of negotiations have gone no where and the pot is at the boiling point.

There have been suggestions that Kim must know that regardless of outcome, war would inevitably mean his death and the end of his dynasty.  The sense is that this would somehow cause him to back down in the end. On the other hand, there have been suggestions that rather than “lose face” to the Americans, he would be willingly suicidal, and take his country with him.

To be sure, Kim may be insane or quite sane; there have been many like him before: Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and certainly Adolph Hitler. All left their mark of destruction, up to and including world war, but all with one exception — none of these monsters had nuclear weapons. He cannot be left to his own devices, and time is not on anyone’s side.  His technology seems to be improving faster than the experts had originally imagined.  If the day comes that he can mount a nuclear weapon on an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S., or place a submarine with nukes aboard off the American coast, it is already too late.

The one possible solution here are the Chinese. While Korea is not a Chinese “puppet”, most of it’s survival depends on the Chinese for trade and support.  China does not want a victorious South Korea or reunified Korea on it’s border, but neither does it want millions of Korean refugees pushed across the Yalu River by a war.

The Chinese could possibly wage and/or assist in a coup against Kim. Removal of him and his most fervent supporters could take the pot off the the fire, possibly allowing for a less extreme governing force in North Korea. It seems at this point only the Chinese could do something like this, and if they did, everyone wins. If they don’t do something, this pot will continue to boil out of control, and everyone will lose.

We are living in a dangerous time.

 

Endnotes

1. Kim Jong-un –Wikipedia

2. Military comparisons — Global Firepower

3. North Korea — Wikipedia

4. The Korean War: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war