Tuesday, 6 September 2016

What we copyright, and how AI might change that

Copyright protects the expression of ideas, not ideas themselves. And at some point, artificial intelligence is going to automate the expression of an idea. This will mean that it will be possible to copy a copyright protected work without infringing copyright.

Computer games are a particularly good example. The graphics of the game are copyrightable as is the story. But not the gameplay. All the thousands of first person shooters out there don't pay royalties to the creators of Wolfenstein 3D. With advanced artificial intelligence it should be possible for the AI to analyse a game, understand the gameplay, and then create a new game that is sufficiently different in graphics and plot, but nonetheless captures idea. And given its the AI doing the implementation in the first place, what value then is there to the human coming up with the novel gameplay mechanic? Not much. There are cheaper clones within minutes of release.

To a lesser, but still significant, extent the same is true of movies and books. The plot can be analysed and an expression thereof created.

What does this tell us?

In some ways it suggests that copyright is somewhat strange: it values expression (implementation) more than ideas. And yet it is ideas that seem to me to be what advances us as a species. Someone could take the idea expressed in this blog post and, using different words express it themselves in a revenue-generating medium, and I would have no recourse against that person profiting from my idea (as an aside I have not done the necessary research to confirm this is an original idea, but I can confirm it is independent).

The other thing that this expected future suggests is that copyright will either be extended in some way to ideas, or will lessen in significance as automation of expression becomes feasible.

Optimizing train carriage utilization - signs on platforms

For various reasons different carriages in trains get fuller than others. This reduces the comfort of passengers, and in extreme cases means that other passengers do not have enough space to board.

But this is a fairly simple problem to solve with existing technology. We can measure the occupancy of a carriage in numerous ways:

  • optical cameras coupled with image recognition technology
  • thermal imaging that captures the number of separate heat sources, or perhaps the aggregate heat being emitted
  • thermometers would probably be sufficient to assess the occupancy to some degree
  • pressure sensors on the seats or floor
  • carbon dioxide levels
  • optical beams measuring entry and egress
  • etc
And we can communicate that information to passengers at subsequent stations. For example, the platform could have lights built into the floor which are greener where the carriages are emptier, and redder where they are fuller.

A couple of thoughts on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

P.14 “An atheist … is someone who believes there is nothing believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand”

By including the “except in the sense of natural phenomena” caveat Dawkins is effectively defining atheists as agnostics: he is saying there could be a god as long as god is a “natural” phenomenon.
It is interesting also that Dawkins’s definition is about belief. He is not starting from a philosophical position of what we know for certain and layering on personal experience, plus trust in the personal experiences of others.

It is also notable that Dawkins’s definition is a belief in the absence of something. In fact,there must be infinite things that Dawkins’s must actively believe don’t exist. He believes that Russell’s teapot doesn’t exist(personally I merely don’t know whether Russell’s teapot exists).

P. 31 “This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.”

Dawkins’s does not seem to give adequate consideration to the possibility that a creative intelligence could have always existed. He has no evidence to rule out such a possibility. Given that our understanding of time as a dimension is extremely poor, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of things that have always existed.

P.46 “The God Hypothesis is also very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability”

This is interesting in two ways:firstly, the God Hypothesis has not been completely ruled out, which implies agnosticism rather than atheism; and secondly, the book fails to provide any evidence on which to use probabilistic analysis to get“very close” to ruling out that hypothesis. He does provide his“Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”, but that does not address the creation of intelligence by a mechanism we don’t currently know(other than random chance or evolution), it models to creation of an intelligence in our Universe with it’s natural laws, and it ignores the possibility of an intelligence that has always existed. All he does is use probability to suggest that the random formation of an intelligence is incredibly unlikely. He also doesn’t show it’s impossible. In fact we can use the anthropic principle to suggest that we are only here to speculate about the existence of a creator because, prior to the creation of the Universe because the forces before the creation of the Universe randomly created an intelligence that created the Universe (which itself is not improbable if time outside of the Universe is infinite – but as mentioned we(particularly I) don’t understand time).

P.46 Dawkins’s is somewhat scathing of agnostics, referring to the statement that they are “namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” as “partly right”. He says that “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” is legitimate, implying that his other category of agnostics, “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle” are illegitimate.

In my opinion Dawkins is both wrong in is mistreatment of agnostics, and wrong in his division into TAP and PAP.

I would probably put my views into Dawkins’s TAP category but:
  • It may be possible that we may not be able to fully understand the universe – we don’t currently so what evidence is that that we will ever fully understand it? I’m not saying that we don’t, just that we don’t know that we will
  • Even if we fully understand the universe, might there be things that exist outside of the universe that we don’t understand? Perhaps our complete understanding of the universe will mathematically prove that nothing exists outside the universe. But perhaps not. If we are in a simulation, even if we completely understand all the physical laws of the simulation, will we get any understanding of the creator of the simulation
Hence my position is more like a Potentially Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, which begins to sound a fair bit like PAP. Although I’m definitely not “Permanently”anything as I realize new evidence could arise at any point.

However, this PTAP position is a day-to-day practical position where I believe in the reality I existing (which is expedient for day-to-day life). Philosophically my position is: that which I perceive exists, but I cannot know the nature of its existence. Philosophically I am firmly PAP, but not just about God, about everything(I know Dawkins exists as a concept, a name, but does he actually exist as a person? I don’t know).

The other aspect of Dawkins’s treatment of agnostics that I don’t understand is that given his extreme hostility towards religion, surely critically thinking agnostics are infinitely preferable to indoctrinated theists? Why does he go out of his way to alienate them?

P.50 Dawkins sets out a probability scale for God on 1 to 7, putting himself as a six. By putting himself at anything less than a seven he does, in my opinion, actually classify himself as an agnostic. But I realize this risk slipping into semantics.

But the other thing that’s interesting here is the information available to assess probability.As discussed above, I don’t think there is adequate evidence for probabilistic analysis. It’s not like assessing the probability of an earthquake in San Francisco within the next year, where we can look at records of previous earthquakes and other data on tectonic movements. There just isn’t evidence to justify where you put yourself on the probability scale.

If god exists outside of the universe then it is perhaps reasonable to assume that no evidence for or against its existence would necessarily be within the universe.

P.53 “The point of all these way-out examples [e.g. The Flying Spaghetti Monster] is that they are undisprovable, yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence”

Well Dawkins is definitely wrong on one count: there is at least one person (myself) that considers their existence / non-existence is on an even footing. Why? Because I have no strong evidence either way. Yes, you could argue that the fact that FSM was created as a parody indicates that it is not true. But then FSM could exist and have a very strange sense of humor. My point is that I don’t know, and that it doesn’t really matter either way.

P.56 “Why are scientists so cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians, over questions that theologians are certainly no more qualified to answer than scientists themselves?

Why does Dawkins dress up his opinion as a question? It is a rhetorical device to improve the persuasiveness of his argument. Although I do tend with his sentiment.

P.164 This is actually a quote from Richard Lewontin, but I thought it worth mentioning as it seems quite significantly wrong, and it surprises me that Dawkins includes it:“That is the one point which I think all evolutionist are agreed upon, that it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is doing in its own environment”.

The reasons I disagree with this statement are two-fold:
  • Firstly it seem to me logical that a species would evolve to do a perfect job (impossible to do better = perfect) over an infinite time-frame, but obviously each species has not been in its own environment for infinity, and hence will not be perfectly evolved for it (hence can do better)
  • Secondly, which somewhat contracts the first point above, evolution may be trapped by local maxima and therefore not achieve the global maximum (there are some sufficiently dynamic environments where over an infinite timescale local maxima will be escaped, but there are probably also environments so stable that this would not be the case
But then I’m not an evolutionist sowhat do I know.

Monday, 15 August 2016

A treat

A treat for me is a difficult subject explained well

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Life audit reality TV show

I've written previously about the concept of a life audit (and a crowd life audit). It occurs to me that a further extension of this would be to combine with reality TV. There are no doubt sufficiently nosy viewers who would be interested in seeing other peoples lives probed into. And likewise there are likely to be at least some sufficiently exhibitionist people that would be willing to have the life audited in public.

All things to all men

You can't be all things to all men, but you can try to draw the battle lines to ensure you are with the majority

Robotic storage

As with many industries, the future of self storage is robotics. Here's how it might look.

It's the end of the summer, you've just returned from a camping trip and are not planning to go camping again till next spring. You tap a couple of buttons on your smartphone an a couple of hours later a delivery drone arrives at your door with a couple of empty plastic storage crate. You load your camping equipment into the boxes, drop the boxes onto the drone, and forget about it till next spring. Whilst you're packing for your next camping trip, another couple of taps on your phone and your camping equipment is back with you.

You never knew where it was stored, and you didn't much care. All that you knew was that it was cheap, hassle free, and never more than an hour away.

To summarize the features of this technology:
  • Storage is containerized (not ISO shipping containers though!)
  • Boxes are collected from and delivered to customers' homes (or other location of choice)
This solution is actually possible with existing technology: we already have self-driving cars, and robots that can manipulate stand-sized packages (the storage crate).

Other than the customer-service benefit, there is a significant benefit to the storage company in that the storage does not need to be located as near to the customer as current self-storage solutions. This potentially allows cheaper land to be used, and larger buildings, resulting in economies of scale.

With more advanced robots

With more advanced robots it should be possible to handle non-containerized objects provided they are able to fit into the transportation drone. In the nearer term, the customer may load these onto the delivery drone at the customer's home and specialist drones will unpack. However it is likely to become possible that the delivery drone will arrive with a packing bot onboard. They packing bot would enter the customer's home to pick up the items, and could potentially wrap and box smaller items.

Consequences of such technology

With this service we can more easily own more things than we can fit into our homes, and as such it is likely that our propensity to consume could increase. However, delivery drones can also make it easier to rent items, which would tend to counter this effect.

Penalty for acquisitive crime

In addition to any appropriate incarceration or community service I think the financial penalty for acquisitive crime should be the confiscation of the offender's assets such as the person has no more than median net assets of the population.


  • The recipients of such penalty cannot argue that they are impoverished
  • There is no difficulty in proving that assets are the proceeds of crime


I consider myself a techno-optimism, albeit of a slightly more reserved kind that the most bullish who fit that description. Whilst my techno-optimism is tempered to some degree by inherent attributes of technology which make them dangerous, it is tempered by a much greater degree by what I have begun to call anthro-pessimism.

It is not a new idea to attribute the negative aspects of technology to man's use of them, but I think it is important to extract the issue of anthro-pessimism from the techno-optimism / techno-pessimism debate, not least because if we can define and characterize anthro-pessimism, we may be able to solve it.

And when we do, we can stop worrying quite so much about technology. In fact it's likely that technology will be able to help us solve the causes of anthro-pessimism.

So how might we define anthro-pessimism? Hollywood (and George W. Bush) would have us call it evil. Others might blame it on selfishness.

Selfishness is not a bad place to start, but in fact people in democracies sometimes vote against things that are not in their self interest (out of ignorance or irrationality, not altruism). Hence I've settled on the following factors as the root cause of my anthro-pessimism:

  • selfishness
  • lack of education / ignorance
  • cognitive biases / rationality
Selfishness - to a small extent this factor has been addressed by the structure of free market / meritocratic societies. It may also be an inherent characteristic that is hard to eliminate. However doing so may not be necessary if the other two factors are adequately addressed. If not it may also be mitigated to some degree by optimizing the structure of society.

Lack of education / ignorance - this is a huge area and in terms of human history is only very recently being addressed. One of the ways current education fails the most is in giving students a broad understanding of the world around them, how it got to be this way and how it may develop in the future; the teaching of history is often particularly narrow and biased.

Cognitive biases / rationality - as I included ignorance as one of my causal factors, perhaps we'd be OK it everyone were educated to the level of a university professor? No so unfortunately: professors are not immune to the cognitive biases that plague human cognition, and are hence not rational, and will not necessarily make optimal decisions.

The three factors can be restated in less human terms as follows:
  • Motivation for decision
  • Access to information
  • Tools to process the information to make a decision that matches the motivation
There is another rarer cause for anthro-pessimism that isn't covered by the three factors above mentioned: a mental health condition that would motivate an actor (or actors) such that despite an absence of ignorance and irrationality, and even considering the consequences of action that would be imposed upon the actor (or actors) by society for committing a harmful act, would still be sufficiently motivated to do so. I am not entirely sure whether such a mental condition exists as I strongly suspect most historical cases that may appear similar would actually so significant ignorance or irrationality, but it is worth including for completeness. It also potentially illustrates a blurry line between selfishness / motivation and irrationality.

Constructive Olympics?

I tend to have a recurring thought about this topic whenever the Olympics cycles around: whilst I am awed by the dedication that Olympic athletes exhibit in pushing themselves to the pinnacle human fitness and skill (in narrow disciplines), I don't consider the particular areas of focus to be all that interesting. Although there are no doubt useful derivatives of sports technology, in general Olympic athletes are not advancing humanity.

I wonder whether there are any people who engage in more intellectual disciplines that train as hard as and push themselves as hard as Olympic athletes? What happens if you take the most inherently mathematically gifted people in each country and then train them in the same way Olympic athletes are trained with: coaches; equipment; optimized diets; and (importantly for non-athletic endeavors), appropriate physical training?

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Home 3D printing

I suspect that rises in distribution network efficiency (particularly in urban/suburban locations) due to automation/drones are likely to outpace improvements in the flexibility and quality of 3D printing, suggesting that the future for at-home 3D printers is limited.

If Amazon stocks just about every conceivable item, and it can be delivered to your home by drone within an hour, do you really need a 3D printer?

Even if you a maker that uses a 3D printer to prototype items and make components, it may still be more cost-effective to use an online 3D printing service that delivers that 3D printed objects to your home, again via drone and probably within an hour of completion of the print job. Such 3D print services would likely be able to afford better 3D printers, and to upgrade them / replace them more frequently.

I believe that at home 3D printing will play an important role in those locations without access to a rapid distribution network.

Self-sustaining underground city

One of the reason's cited by those advocating the colonisation of Mars or the Moon (or orbital, or Venus) is to provide a refuge for humanity in the event of any catastrophe on Earth. A couple of quotes from Elon Musk on the subject are reproduced below (from the Guardian):

"It's sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let's say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?"

"The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time."

Whilst I entirely agree with doing what we can preserve intelligent life and civilisation, and I am keen that we colonise the solar system, I wonder whether there is a more cost-effective way to create such a refuge here on Earth.

It should be possible with current technology to build a self-sustaining underground city on Earth (or potentially many). Powered by geothermal energy, the city could be a closed ecosystem that recycled all air and nutrients. Food would be grown hydroponically.

In addition to recycling resources it may be possible for such a city to undertake a self-sustaining mining operation (by self-sustaining I mean that enough resources of the right types are extracted to maintain and create additional mining equipment). This would allow the city to slowly increase the living area to support population growth, and to develop further geothermal power sources to increase resource availability.

The city would be connected to the rest of humanity via the Internet, but would otherwise not be connected except in the event of a disaster in the colony. It is important to maintain this separation such that a pandemic affecting the surface world would not affect the underground world.

Advantages over a Moon/Mars/orbital refuge:

  • Proximity to Earth's surface for construction (particularly given the enormous cost of transporting material off the Earth's surface)
  • Proximity to Earth's surface for recolonisation
  • Proximity to Earth's surface for assistance in the event of disaster in the colony
  • Earth gravity
  • No additional latency in communicate with Earth's surface

Disadvantages compared with a Moon/Mars/orbital refuge:

  • Could potentially suffer from some of the same catastrophes that affect the Earth's surface (e.g. if directly targetted by a nuclear weapon)
  • Potentially lower availability of energy / resources
  • Separation from the economy of Earth's surface would be artificial
  • The proximity to Earth's surface would make such an endeavor feel less like a colony, with members (particularly second and later generation members) wanting to abandon the colony and rejoin the population on the Earth's surface

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Sharing space, power and network connectivity for science

There are already several projects that let you donate your spare computing cycles (and power and network connectivity) to science, notably the SETI@home and Folding@home projects. But what other ways can citizens support science passively from their homes?

An interesting expansion of this would be for citizens to host networked sensors at their homes that collect data from scientific research. There are several possibilities:

  • weather - air temperature, air pressure, rainfall, humidity, light sensors, wind speed sensors, etc
  • air quality - already done, see Air Quality Egg, TZOA, AirBeamLapka PEM, Clarity, CleanSpace
  • telescope - it is well within the capabilities of current technology to have an automated telescope that scans the skies capturing data with digital sensors and relaying that information to scientists via the internet. Potentially the telescope could be directed remotely, for example to track a comet.
  • biodiversity monitoring - cameras (both visible light and infrared), combined with image recognition technology could potentially be deployed to identify and count wildlife, particularly birds, and ideally indicator species
  • traffic sensor - a camera combined with image recognition technology that monitors the traffic in the road outside the house
  • soil moisture / water table level - this sensor would need to be dug into the ground, and would provide data on drought conditions and the risk of flooding
The key attributes of these systems is that they would be fully automated. All the citizen would need to do would be to purchase the device, site it somewhere appropriate (e.g. telescope on the roof) connect it to a power source and connect it to their internet connection.

Perhaps slightly more invasive to privacy, but nonetheless useful for psychological and sociological researchers, would be to install sensors to monitor human behavior in the house. However, such data collection is more closely linked to the individual that the location, and is already to a large extent covered by the quantified self movement (albeit not necessarily with the data shared with scientists).

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Digital celestial navigation

It should be possible to construct a device that uses light sensors (digital cameras), data on star (and visible planet) position and an accurate clock to give the user their latitude and longitude. The user would point the device towards the sky, and it would capture image data. This data would be pattern-matched against expected star positions for a particular latitude and longitude, at a particular time. Such a device might serve as a useful backup to GPS in the event of failure of the GPS network.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Wealth equality and minutiae

If you imagine how housing might look in an entirely equal society, you may imagine rows and rows of equally sized houses such that each family is equal. But are they equal? Would houses with South-facing gardens (Northern hemisphere) not be more sought after? What about houses that are nearer to the factory, or to the train station, or wherever it is that the government hands out rations?

The more one thinks about wealth equality, it is clear that absolute wealth equality is impossible to achieve. Further, the more equal wealth becomes, the more the minutiae (which are likely impossible to eradicate) will be emphasized and sought after.

Likewise, it is interesting to speculate what pure wealth inequality might be like. The only answer to this I can conceive of is one person owning everything. But to do so would mean that no-one else would be able to survive (they wouldn't own the food to eat, or the air to breathe). Hence pure wealth inequality is also impossible.

Given that neither pure wealth equality and pure wealth inequality cannot be achieved, all that remains is a matter of degrees. All political positions must be somewhere on a continuum of equality.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Open speeding data

Rather than only get feedback from a speed camera when the speed limit has been exceeded, why not provide a website where all speeding data is published, allowing drivers to log in and see how close they got to breaking the speed limit, and providing email warnings when drivers are close to exceed the speed limit.

Thinking with a cool head

It would be interesting to test whether people do think more clearly when they have a cool head (e.g. actively cooled down with a cool pad). And if so, develop a productivity had that maintains the head at the optimum temperature.

Periscope glasses

I would like a pair of glasses with dynamic periscopes attached that would track the TV whatever my head position. Such glasses would need to have a camera and image recognition functionality, together with actuators to rotate and swivel the mirrors in the periscope.

Semi-strong agnosticism

Whilst strong agnosticism states that "I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you", and weak agnosticism states that "I don't know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, if there is evidence, we can find something out", I propose a middle ground: semi-strong agnosticism.

Semi-strong agnosticism states "it is probably the case that I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you, but there is a possibility that my mental model of the certainty of information is flawed, and hence there is a possibility that it is possible to know for certain whether a deity exists or not".

My belief in strong agnosticism stems from my general stance on what I can know (I first thought this after spending some time thinking about Descartes' I think therefore I am):

That which I perceive exists, but I cannot know the nature of its existence.

So, I perceive myself, but I cannot know the nature of my existence, for example I cannot know whether I have free will. I perceive the world around me, but I cannot know whether it is real, a dream, an illusion or a simulation.

Hence, I may perceive a deity but given that I cannot be certain that I'm not in a dream, I cannot be certain that the deity is not merely a figment of the dream.

However, I have to accept the possibility that my general stance on what I can know might be wrong, and therefore have to accept the possibility that there could be some kind of mathematical proof of the nature of what I perceive, and hence of a deity.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

App ratings and reviews

This blog post is on the app ratings and review systems on Apple iTunes, Google Play and Amazon App Store. All three of these stores provide a 5 star rating scale and a text review (title + body text).

The problems I see with the current review/rating systems are as follows:

  • Single score doesn’t communicate in much depth what the reviewer is trying to say
  • Single scores don’t benefit content discovery
  • Review text is unstructured

To improve upon the existing rating/review system, it's worth considering:

  • what the reviewers are trying to communicate
  • who the reviewers are communicating to
  • of that which is being communicated, which is the most important

What reviews/ratings are trying to communicate:

  • Quality
    • Look and feel / graphics
    • Features
    • Bugs
  • Extent of recommendation
  • Value for money
  • Ideas for the app / ideas for derivative apps
  • That there is / isn’t a market for future apps of this type

Who reviews/ratings are trying to communicate to:

  • Other potential customers
  • Developer
  • Other developers
  • The App Stores (typically to complain about an app)
What is most important:
  • For me, the most important thing that reviewers are communicating is the extend of recommendation

Suggestions for a better system

Each review would have the following sections:

  • Message to the developer (private)
  • Over-all rating (5 star scale)
  • Over-all review
  • Set of recommendations (see below)

Three-variable recommendation system:

  • Who the recommendation is for (tag-like system, when the user starts to type the name of a group, they're shown options to pick from) (e.g. fans of X)
  • Why you're recommending it / What you think they’ll get out of it
  • How much you're recommending it
Users would be able to follow recommendations streams to help them find new content.

Structuring notes with time

Consider the following two scenarios:

  • you write a diary, in which every now and then you write something about your objectives
  • you have a list of objectives that you add to every now and again

The former scenario is less structured. Whilst it might be possible to search the diary for entries containing text about career objectives (or use tags), there may be duplication in the results, or incompleteness. And the data is unlikely to be in exactly the same format (unless some kind of standard format is specified in advance).

The latter scenario doesn't (generally) have time information, which inhibits the ability to track how one's objectives change over time. Even if the objective list was actually a table with two fields, objective and date added, that still wouldn't capture whether the objective made the list at each review point over time.

Is there a general name for this type of problem?