Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sentimental Ostriches

There is a pernicious body of opinion gaining ground among those that care that the solution to our supposed demise in teenage civility, in the form of yobs, chavs, and ASBO-culture, would be a return to the Good Old Days of the fifties, before wishy-washy lefty liberals were allowes to crawl all over our education system

A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that a return to the "house system" in state schools would help combat alienation of youth. The IPPR also suggests that paramilitary organisations like the scouts should be encouraged.

There's a head teacher campaigning for the re-introduction of the fountain pen as the usual means of writing in schools as a means of improving literacy.

Naturally I disagree with this sort of sentimentalism. As to the fountain pen initiative, I'm sure the head in question had the best of motives, but are we really so ridiculously up ourselves that we can't realise that literacy has a lot more to do with how students are taught, rather than what they are taught to write with?

As to the IPPR report - I find it depressing that researchers can so readily accept that A: education was better in the 1950s and B: encouraging vague sentimentalism will not lead to confusion over the key issue of education.

A cursory glance of this weblog will show you that my standards of literacy are not top-notch, but I doubt that being able to write pretty, copperplate, longhand will improve my typing skillz. One of the major means of mass-communication that students will have to deal with as adults will be that of email and - as anyone who uses both keyboards and pens - I can tell you that the two are so different that it makes little difference what you learn to write in longhand script, you will still cut corners and use txt and other wonderful embellishments to the written language.

Besides, one of the funniest books I've ever read was Molesworth by Geoffrey Williams. It satirises the prose of a fifties schoolboy, complete with divine illustrations by the great Ronald Searle. Anyway, it just goes to show that every generation decries the state of the preceding generation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How the Mind Works

Steven Pinker has written an excellent book here. I don’t properly understand the subtleties of his argument but he seems to be saying that a large part of who we are is inherent in our genes.

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings in the controversy such a position seems to conjure up. There is a strong body of intellectual opinion that has always decried any such argument as fascistic and racist (because it is said to suggest that people might actually be inferior (for a largely arbitrary value of superiority) by virtue of their genetics.

Pinker also notes that as our understanding of how the mind functions increases we will inevitably be slicing away at any concept of free will. Rationally speaking, there is no supernatural homunculus sitting in a Cartesian theatre in our pineal gland. Therefore our behaviour, what we would consider to be the product of free will and consciousness, is simply the result of chaotic interactions between the outside world and various areas of our brain.

Pinker himself offers a solution to these moral conundrum: view the scientific debate, in which human beings are mechanical objects, and the moral debate, in which all humans are afforded equal rights under the law, as two separate arenas of debate.

I agree with this: all men may not be created equal by virtue of their talents, skin colour, gender, financial security, and upbringing. But everyone is considered an equal and rational freely determined being under the law.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It's All Just Meat

When faced with the breadth and majesty of books like The Singularity is Near, Engines of Creation and Hacking Matter it is difficult not to feel inspired and optimistic about the future. There is a particular brand of techno-progressive idealogue who can weave images in the mind as effectively as any of the technologies they predict.

There is a problem. Ray Kurzweil calls it "the argument from incredulity". The picture of a plentiful future peopled by synthetic superhumans is so compelling it registers on our internal TGTBTM (Too Good To Be True Meter) as a being unreasonably optimistic.

Most rational people who don't live within the bleeding edge of pattern-recognition technologies simply refuse to accept that the clanking, smoking, bad-for-the-environment hulks of machined metal that are what most people still associate with the word "machine" could ever turn into anything as sublimely effective and versatile as a human being.

It is interesting to look back at how technological changes have been predicted to occur and how they actually did occur. Take the widely-predicted advent of powered flight in the late Victorian era. We see those wonderfully fanciful drawings of individuals flitting around in one-man ornithopters. The artist that comes to mind is Heath Robinson, although his were probably actually drawn in the early twentieth century.

One of the great fears of the Victorians, as exemplified by the writing of H.G. Wells, was the concept of "war in the air" (the other great fear being that of the advent of powered cavalry). That WITA became a terrible reality through the Blitz of London within the lifetimes of many of those already adults during the Victorian era suggests that our current fears of GM viruses, dangerous artificial intelligences and rampant nanotechnology scenarios may not be as far-fetched as we could imagine.

I disagree with Kurzweil's sweeping "law of accelerating returns". The most compelling point he makes in support of this is that over the lifetime of the universe, complexity has tended to increase in a manner which strongly resembles an exponential graph.

However when we get down to the nitty-gritty level of technological development over the years and decades of a human lifetime "progress" (an amorphous term in this debate) seems to happen in fits and starts, and is strongly influenced by political and economic factors.

That a young (perhaps 20 year-old) Victorian in 1900 growing up in a world without heavier than air flight could live to see the Apollo and the Moon landings (Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) springs to mind) is an extraordinary thing.

Another point to consider before dismissing Kurzweil entirely is the nature of technological change. The counterpart of the technology of aircraft in the early twentieth century is the development of computers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Computers tend to affect things in ways that were difficult to comprehend beforehand. Highly efficient information management and versatile and decentralised communication generate a lot of side-effects that would not be immediately obvious to someone who was not aware of computers.

Spime and conversion and the gradual move from centralised manufacturing towards decentralised CAD/CAM machines will allow the effects of abundant, effective computing to move from the world of pure information to the real world the rest of us inhabit.

At the moment our world is still very much run by meat. Humans are required for their versatility and imagination, if for little else. I think that of all Ray Kurzweil's predictions, the most likely to turn out to be correct is his belief that there will be a strong convergence between human and machine intelligence with the result of an (even more) profound change in the way the world works.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Future of Business

With all this talk of of global warming it is becoming painfully clear that something must be done.

Fortunately someone is doing something. After suffering years of disappointment with electric cars someone has finally developed something intriguing. The EEStor is a ceramic battery that promises a lot: "A four-passenger sedan will drive like a Ferrari."

Kudos to these pioneering entrepeneurs. There's something wonderfully wholesome about the concept of the electric car - I hope to own one myself one day.

I'm interested to see what the percentages of biofuel (alcohols and other vegetable-derived fluids), hyrogen fuel cell or "electric battery" cars will be in the future. In Brazil, there is such a thing as a "tribrid" car. Maybe that is what we'll end up with.