GUEST APPEARANCE by Paul Bassett: Cosmologist, internationally-known AI specialist, keynote speaker and published author. His third contribution follows, speaking on Our Universe.

It gives me tremendous pleasure (again) in introducing my long-time friend and colleague, Paul Bassett. Paul has written a blog contribution below, which I know you will find extremely thought-provoking. Your responses are of course, solicited.

Paul Bassett photo Paul Bassett is a retired software engineer, author, entrepreneur, and inventor. His invention of Frame Technology (used around the world to automate software development) won him CIP’s Technology Innovation Award. He’s published numerous papers and a book Framing Software Reuse. Paul was a member of IEEE’s Distinguished Visitor Program, and has given keynote addresses, taught computer science at York University, and co-founded several businesses, including two successful software engineering companies. His MSc in artificial intelligence (U. of Toronto) imbued him with a life-long passion for divining the role and future life in the universe.


What is the Name of Our Universe?

“Our universe” means different things in cultures with different creation myths. In my culture, “our universe” usually means the observable universe, which is a sphere with the Earth at its centre; it is the largest volume of matter that can ever affect us. Its radius is 46.6 billion light-years (1 light-year = 9.46 billion km.) and growing at one light-year per year. But the universe created at the “Big Bang” (13.8 billion years ago) surrounds “our universe”, and is unimaginably larger still. Virtually all the matter in the “Big Bang universe” is moving away from us faster than the speed of light, so can never affect us.

In “our universe”, we can see galaxies that can never see each other because any pair of galaxies that are more than 13.8 billion light-years apart have not had enough time since the Big Bang for light to travel from one to the other. So one could say that those galaxies are outside each other’s universes.

Finally, there is the notion of a ‘multiverse’, a universe some cosmologists speculate is spawning universes all the time, just as it spawned our “Big Bang universe”. With so many universes, there is no name for any of them! That said, “our universe” is the de facto name for the one and only universe that matters to us.


Is artificial intelligence intelligent? or is it just machine learning?

There are many ways to define intelligence. Almost all of them involve problem solving proficiency. Problem-solving in turn, is deeply connected to the notion of algorithm, a method for converting inputs to outputs, or in mathematics, computing a function. Every computable function* has a countably infinite number of algorithms that can compute it, each varying greatly in its proficiency – the time and memory it requires to compute its outputs.

All brains and computers work by performing algorithms*. Brains have algorithms whose outputs are algorithms. Normally, brains invent/improve algorithms that computers use, as is. But ever since computers were invented, a goal has been to enable computers to invent/improve their own algorithms, what is commonly referred to as machine learning.

Human intelligence correlates with how quickly one can learn, with the vastness of one’s knowledge, expertise, wisdom, creativity,…This somewhat vague list of attributes all boil down, as I said, to the proficiency of various algorithms. After decades of frustratingly small advances, algorithms have recently been devised that allow simulated, multi-layered neural networks to learn to become much better than any human at quite a few impressive problem domains: from playing games such as checkers, chess, backgammon, poker and go, to medical diagnoses, to language translation, to facial recognition, to driving cars, to big-data pattern recognition, and so on. These machines are said to employ deep learning (“deep” means many layers of simulated neurons, each learning a different aspect of how to solve an overall problem).

Are these machines intelligent? In their domains of expertise, YES. Do they exhibit general intelligence? NO, because they still lack many key algorithms. In particular, no deep learning system today can give reasons for its choices (e.g., why it makes particular chess moves); nor do we know how to enable a machine to be an expert in multiple domains (e.g., chess and medicine). Billions of dollars are being spent on achieving general-purpose AI. And recent rapid progress leaves less and less room for skepticism*.

What is clear now is this: Like humans do, AIs will acquire their intelligence, not from human programmers, but by learning from experience, aided and unaided by teachers. Programmers may give them their initial learning algorithms, but what they learn, including learning to learn better, will emerge from an AI’s interactions with its environments.

*For those who still believe brains can think in ways that machines never can: Almost a century ago computer science pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Alonzo Church, conjectured that a certain well-defined set contained all and only the functions that matter and energy can ever compute. (This countably infinite set is infinitesimal compared to the uncountably infinite set of all functions.) Since then, many have tried to refute it and failed. More recently, physicist David Deutsch finally proved the conjecture, assuming only that matter and energy obey the laws of quantum mechanics. Thus both brains and (quantum) computers are confined to thinking using algorithms in that set.


Aging and Psycho-Social Changes

“Oh, I’m my own Grandpa’…Yes I’m my own Grandpa’…”

Or so the song goes.

Some days I feel that way. When my Dad was 71 I used to think “Holy crap! He’s 71. He’s old!’ I would have been about 42. Even though he could still build steps down to the lake at the cottage. And shoot a partridge dead on at any distance with one shot. And fix his manifold pipe on his station-wagon. And catch the biggest muskie. My Mom at 71 could still go bowling, and make fantastic dinners, and oil paint, and play the accordion.

Dad always said “time speeds up the older you get”, and boy, was he right about that. It just feels like yesterday I had two horses, 2 goats, 9 steers, 100 chickens, and 32 racing pigeons while living on my old farm on the 2nd Concession. That was 38 years ago. But I can hear them, and smell them, and picture how I had to wash the horses down after we had a long ride, and free the goats horns from the page-wire fence ’cause she thought the grass was greener on the other side. And I remember the sauna parties we had on Saturday night, when 3-4 naked couples would polish off a case of beer and fry ourselves in the interest of cleanliness at +85C. Then jump in the snow at -20C. And in the Spring have to fish frogs out of the well. And plant our 40′ x 60” garden with enough veggies to get us through winter. And go to Community Center dances and dance to Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and Bobby Curtola, with other men’s wives who by 11 pm had no idea who you were. Occasionally, I didn’t either, but those were the days when tomorrow was a sure thing.

But today, 6 years after having had prostate cancer (I’m still clear), and suffering the loss of two children 30-40 years ago to an inherited terminal disease, and not teaching university any more due to poverty salaries for part-time instructors, and losing a college director position because the college owners of 124 colleges in Canada and California went bankrupt, and losing three of my best buddies to disease in this past year; yet, enjoying my second marriage, my two grow daughters, and living in a large house I designed, on 100 private acres, with good friends as tenants, and a trout stream 100 feet away, and now doing consulting and publishing work – life has been good for the past 12 years. But time is accelerating.

Everyone has a story to tell. The psychology of self-change from external ‘beyond-your-control’ events, and of internal struggles along the way, is different yet similar with most people I have met. Adaptations of mood, of new talents and interests, of new relationships and responsibilities, of physical changes, of health and job and finance changes …..all figure prominently in the trajectory to older age we all experience. One’s life view, one’s values, interests, and community of friends, tend to solidify into a more manageable, smaller world, as we age. Things become more predictable yet often more significant when things go wrong, especially our health.

The people with whom we would trust our lives and deepest secrets we can now count on one hand. The obituaries become read more often, and eating ‘experimental food dishes’ becomes less interesting. At “retirement”, especially, one’s perspectives on mortality, sexuality, appearances, hobbies, routines, parenting/grand-parenting, and recreation, take on a whole new meaning. This “life review” process of reminiscing can be gratifying or can lead to despair, anxiety and depression depending on the amount and degree of regret experienced. But the life review process is neither universal nor specific to older age. because any number of events can trigger a review, e.g., loss of a loved one, personal bankruptcy, loss of a job, divorce, or major health concerns. Levinson’s (1978) “seasons of life” theory seems to more accurately reflect the ‘stage theory’ of life than those of Erikson, Piaget, Freud or Jung. Levinson suggests that we all go through four psycho-social ‘eras’: 1. childhood to the end of adolescence (age 0-22); 2. early adulthood (ages 17-45); 3. middle age (40-65); and 4. late adulthood (60 and over). Adjusting to and balancing changing personal circumstances and a changing social world, predicts how successful one’s development becomes.

So changes in cognition (intelligence, learning, memory) occur along the path of life. And physical changes may limit or enhance life experiences. My uncle and aunt lived to be 96 and 94 respectively, and were intellectually sharp and reasonably mobile before they died. My wife’s mother is 89 and still drives to the grocery store. And my friend’s mother is 100, lives alone, and can still win most of the time in a card game. Conversely, I have lost friends and relatives in their 50s, 60s, and 70s to health problems.

As well as being a lifelong process, ‘aging’ as stages is socially constructed rather than inevitable. Each of us is a product of time, pace and circumstance, and yet only broad generalizations can be made about what constitutes aging. One of my university students was 90 when she took my 2nd-year sociology of education course. Having sex at 80 is not uncommon. Climbing a tall tree at 75 has been done, I’m sure. And running a marathon at 77, sky-diving in the Andes at 76, and writing a famous book at 82 – have all been done.

We have to avoid the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ syndrome of assuming that because we have reached a certain age, we must act a certain way in spite of our psycho-social and physical integrity. Life can be too short, and can speed up too fast. There are many things to put in one’s “bucket list”. Tomorrow is a new day.

Source (2): Levinson, D. (1978). The Seasons of a Man’s Life. (1996). The Seasons of a Woman’s Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.