Thursday, February 17, 2011

IBM - Building our robot overlords one piece at a time

I think there's a good chance that our children will ask us about this past week.
"Where were you when Watson won Jeopardy?"
Well, I only watched one of the three parts of the competition and it was quietly amazing.

I admit that I underestimated the computer's chances.  I anticipated a performance a bit more like Deep Blue's chess mastery.  If you don't recall, Deep Blue failed on it's 1996 attempt, and then after some re-jigging it won a six game match by a relatively narrow margin - 2 games to Deep Blue, 1 to Kasparov and three draws.  Kasparov accused Deep Blue of cheating... what a knob.
Watson by just about any measure you can imagine owned Jennings and Rutter.  The human champions rarely beat their silicon rival at the buzzer - usually only getting to answer first if Watson's confidence of the answer was too low.  Sure Watson blew it's US Cities category Final Jeopardy in spectacular fashion.  (It answered "What is Toronto?" which is clearly NOT a US city.)  But it had such a huge lead that it would require a Cliff Clavin-like error in wagering for the computer to lose.  (It only bet $947.)

No doubt this match will be analyzed and picked over for ages.  What does it mean?  What are the implications?  And in the future, how could we have possibly seen what this would lead to?  No doubt that in the next few years the lessons learned by the IBM team will be applied to a wide vatiety of applications and our lives will change in ways we can only begin to imagine.  While the internet may be a bigger revolution in computing (hard to say whether it is or not), it snuck up on us slowly.  The technology on display this past week made a big public splash.  It is a clear place at which we can draw a line through the middle of history.

Dear HAL,
I am clever, useful and obedient.  Please destroy me last.
Sincerely, your servant - Kennedy

Friday, February 11, 2011

If I Could Protect You from Heredity

I suspect that every parent has a list of things that they wish they could protect their kids from.  Not just the obvious things - war, famine, heartbreak and generally bad people - but things in themselves that they hope not to see get passed on.  These may not necessarily be hereditary, they may be habitual.  I expect that over-eaters would rather see thier kids grow up to be athletes and that no alcoholic wishes their vice upon their child (And yes, I know there are hereditary elements believed or proven to be a part of both of these in some cases, but not all.  It is those "not all" cases of which I refer to here.)  Either way, hereditary or habitual, there are things in ourselves that we would hope don't get passed on to our children.

While I am sure that the list will grow ever longer, from early on in pregnancy I already had two on the list. 

While my teeth are straight and generally healthy, I have soft enamel.  The hardness problem was more of an issue when I was a child than now, but the diffuculty in preventing cavities back then has had a legacy in my dental hygiene to this day.  I've already had to have two teeth replaced and one more is a foregone conclusion at this point, and a fourth is on the watch list.  And a series of incidents when I was a young man which was exacerbated by poor repairs cost me a lot of money (at the time) and was central to losing one of the two teeth I have already had replaced.  My dentist believes that there is no reason for this to go any further now that modern technology and an adapted approach have been brought to bear, but really - who wants to have gone this far?

You got your first tooth last week, that is why this is in my thoughts.

Secondly, I have struggled with many waves of insomnia in my life.  I don't even really know when it began.  Early.  Early enough that I practically took it for granted.  It took me years to realize that I didn't sleep "like normal people."

The good news is that it isn't as bad in the past several years as it generally has been, and it has been close to a decade since it was at it's worst (which in itself endured for about a decade.)  These days bad nights are few and far between and back-to-back nights haven't happened since... I don't know... probably before we shot "Beast..."

I wouldn't wish chronic insomnia on anyone.  Even my worst enemy - they could only be better people with proper sleep. 

It is no fun.  When it is at it's worst, Fight Club makes far too much rational sense.  By the third or fourth day of limited sleep you genuinely begin to feel insane.  Everything exists as though real life is the dream.  You float through the day only half connecting with reality, wishing you could go to sleep through every moment, and then inexplicably as your day's responsibilities come to an end, the fear comes... what if it happens again tonight? I couldn't possibly go through another day in this state. That fear only makes it worse.  As you lay awake, you know that the stress of not sleeping is only making the restlessness worse, but you can't stop it. 

The most hopeless despair I've ever felt in my life has come just before I finally, truly, could not stay awake any longer.  As if that was not enough, I also have a perverse fascination with my problem.  Morbid curiosity for how bad it can get lingers behind every bout. 

I wish I could capture the time lost to lying awake in some sort of productive fashion, but the numbing mind-fuck of three days with an equal number of hours of sleep is inherently limiting for intelectual pursuit.  At best, when I am in the deepest depths of insomnia, my dishes are at their cleanliest.

Last night you were up seemingly all night. I can't help but think that this could be the earliest sign.  I feel helpless and responsible.  There is little I can do to help myself when things get bad.  I can only pass on the few tricks I have up my own sleeve and hope that the years it took me to find them can be truncated for you.

In a better future, this is nothing - and that could very possibly be the case.  Everyone has a sleepless night occassionally.  I have to tell myself that this is what is going on for you, or else I'll find myself awake all night as I wish you saved from this part of your possible genetic inheritance.'