Futurology, Technology

Musk City, Antarctica

One of the criticisms of a Mars colony is that Antarctica is more hospitable in literally every regard (you might argue that the 6-month day and the 6-month night makes it less hospitable, to which I would reply that light bulbs exist and you’d need light bulbs all year round on Mars to avoid SAD-like symptoms).

I’ve just realised the 2017 BFR will be able to get you anywhere in Antarctica, from any launch site on Earth, in no more than 45 minutes, at the cost of long-distance economy passenger flights, and that the Mars plan involves making fuel and oxidiser out of atmospheric CO₂ and frozen water ice so no infrastructure needs to be shipped conventionally before the first landing.

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Futurology, AI

The end of human labour is inevitable, here’s why

OK. So, you might look at state-of-the-art A.I. and say “oh, this uses too much power compared to a human brain” or “this takes too many examples compared to a human brain”.

So far, correct.

But there are 7.6 billion humans: if an A.I. watches all of them all of the time (easy to imagine given around 2 billion of us already have two or three competing A.I. in our pockets all the time, forever listening for an activation keyword), then there is an enormous set of examples with which to train the machine mind.

“But,” you ask, “what about the power consumption?”

Humans cost a bare minimum of $1.25 per day, even if they’re literally slaves and you only pay for food and (minimal) shelter. Solar power can be as cheap as 2.99¢/kWh.

Combined, that means that any A.I. which uses less than 1.742 kilowatts per human-equivalent-part is beating the cheapest possible human — By way of comparison, Google’s first generation Tensor processing unit uses 40 W when busy — in the domain of Go, it’s about 174,969 times as cost efficient as a minimum-cost human, because four of them working together as one can teach itself to play Go better than the best human in… three days.

And don’t forget that it’s reasonable for A.I. to have as many human-equivalent-parts as there are humans performing whichever skill is being fully automated.

Skill. Not sector, not factory, skill.

And when one skill is automated away, when the people who performed that skill go off to retrain on something else, no matter where they are or what they do, there will be an A.I. watching them and learning with them.

Is there a way out?

Sure. All you have to do is make sure you learn a skill nobody else is learning.

Unfortunately, there is a reason why “thinking outside the box” is such a business cliché: humans suck at that style of thinking, even when we know what it is and why it’s important. We’re too social, we copy each other and create by remixing more than by genuinely innovating, even when we think we have something new.

Computers are, ironically, better than humans at thinking outside the box: two of the issues in Concrete Problems in AI Safety are there because machines easily stray outside the boxes we are thinking within when we give them orders. (I suspect that one of the things which forces A.I. to need far more examples to learn things than we humans do is that they have zero preconceived notions, and therefore must be equally open-minded to all possibilities).

Worse, no matter how creative you are, if other humans see you performing a skill that machines have yet to master, those humans will copy you… and then the machines, even today’s machines, will rapidly learn from all the enthusiastic humans who are so gleeful about their new trick to stay one step ahead of the machines, the new skill they can point to and say “look, humans are special, computers can’t do this” right up until the computers do it.

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Science, Technology

Railgun notes #2

[Following previous railgun notes, which has been updated with corrections]

Force:
F = B·I·l
B = 1 tesla

I: Current = Voltage / Resistance
l: Length of armature in meters

F = 1 tesla · V/R · l
F = m · a
∴ a = (1 tesla · V/R · l) / m

Using liquid mercury, let cavity be 1cm square, consider section 1cm long:
∴ l = 0.01 m
Resistivity: 961 nΩ·m
∴ Resistance R = ((961 nΩ·m)*0.01m)/(0.01m^2) = 9.6×10^-7 Ω
Volume: 1 millilitre
∴ Mass m = ~13.56 gram = 1.356e-2 kg
∴ a = (1 tesla · V/(9.6×10^-7 Ω) · (0.01 m)) / (1.356e-2 kg)

Let target velocity = Escape velocity = 11200 m/s = 1.12e4 m/s:
Railgun length s = 1/2 · a · t^2
And v = a · t
∴ t = v / a
∴ s = 1/2 · a · (v / a)^2
∴ s = 1/2 · a · v^2 / a^2
∴ s = 1/2 · v^2 / a
∴ s = 1/2 · ((1.12e4 m/s)^2) / ((1 tesla · V/(9.6×10^-7 Ω) · (0.01 m)) / (1.356e-2 kg))

@250V: s = 0.3266 m (matches previous result)

@1V: s = 81.65 m
I = V/R = 1V / 9.6×10^-7 Ω = 1.042e6 A
P = I · V = 1V · 1.042e6 A = 1.042e6 W

Duration between rails:
t = v / a
∴ t = (1.12e4 m/s) / a
∴ t = (1.12e4 m/s) / ( (1 tesla · V/(9.6×10^-7 Ω) · (0.01 m)) / (1.356e-2 kg) )

(Different formula than before, but produces same values)
@1V: t = 0.01458 seconds

Electrical energy usage: E = P · t
@1V: E = 1.042e6 W · 0.01458 seconds = 1.519e4 joules

Kinetic energy: E = 1/2 · m · v^2 = 8.505e5 joules

Kinetic energy out shouldn’t exceed electrical energy used, so something has gone wrong.

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AI, Software, Technology

Automated detection of propaganda and cultural bias

The ability of word2vec to detect relationships between words (for example that “man” is to “king” as “woman” is to “queen”) can already be used to detect biases. Indeed, the biases are so easy to find, so blatant, that they are embarrassing.

Can this automated detection of cultural bias be used to detect deliberate bias, such as propaganda? It depends in part on how large the sample set is, and in part on how little data the model needs to become effective.

I suspect that such a tool would work only for long-form propaganda, and for detecting people who start to believe and repeat that propaganda: individual tweets — or even newspaper articles — are likely to be far too short for these tools, but the combined output of all their tweets (or a year of some journalist’s articles) might be sufficient.

If it is at all possible, it would of course be very useful. For a few hours, until the propagandists started using the same tool the way we now all use spell checkers — they’re professionals, after all, who will use the best tools money can buy.

That’s the problem with A.I., as well as the promise: it’s a tool for thinking faster, and it’s a tool which is very evenly distributed throughout society, not just in the hands of those we approve of.

Of course… are we right about who we approve of, or is our hatred of Them just because of propaganda we’ve fallen for ourselves?

(Note: I’ve seen people, call them Bobs, saying “x is propaganda”, but I’ve never been able to convince any of the Bobs that they are just as likely to fall for propaganda as the people they are convinced have fallen for propaganda. If you have any suggestions, please comment).

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Technology

iOS or Android?

“What’s best” always depends on what you want to do. This is my impression of which of iOS and Android is better in different circumstances:

Lowest cost Android
Any specific single feature (best camera, dual-sim, FM radio, etc.) Android
Best build quality iOS
Easy to modify Android
Secure from other people modifying it without you knowing iOS
Smart Watch iOS
Smart Watch if you don’t like the Apple Watch Android
Virtual Reality Android
Voice control interface Android
MacOS integration iOS
Meaningful choice of web browsers Android
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Space rockets are Big.

Those quaint little pictures that show them next to Nelson’s Column or the Eiffel Tower don’t do them justice, partly because… well. I didn’t even realise how big the Eiffel Tower is until I visited it a few years ago.

So, here’s what the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket looks like, next to Nelson’s Column. Take a close look at the bottom, both photos have people in them.

Falcon 9.jpg

The image of Nelson’s Column [linked here] is licensed as Creative Commons Share Alike, which requires that “If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.”

Fortunately, the image from SpaceX [link] was licensed as CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, which doesn’t interfere with my ability to release this as CC-SA-3.

Science, Technology

Falcon 9 to scale

Image
Software

Executable images

Twenty years ago, back in 1997, there was an urban legend that some images contained viruses.

“Absurd!” thought the teenage me, “Images are just data, they can’t do anything!”

Well, I was wrong. In 2004, researchers found a bug in a Microsoft JPEG library which allowed a well-crafted .jpg to totally compromise a computer — file system, arbitrary code, administrator access, everything. Obviously that particular bug has now been fixed, but it did make me realise quite how badly broken things can be.

Despite all the tools that help us software engineers solve problems, reduce our bug count, secure our software, and develop things faster, we still don’t seem to have this as our mindset. We have professional groups, but membership of them is not needed for jobs. Automated tests exist, but knowledge of them is limited and use even more limited (for example, I wish I could say I had professional experience of them since university, but no such luck). We don’t have anything like a medical licence (or even just the hippocratic oath), there is nothing to stop people practicing code without a licence the way people are prevented from practicing law without a licence.

And now, we’re making a world where A.I. replaces humans. Automation is fine, nothing wrong with it… but if you assume the computer is either always right or that the errors are purely random, you will be blind to problems this causes.

Hackers.

I can’t say that I have “a hacker mentality”, but mainly because the phrase means completely different things to different people, so I will say this: I see loopholes everywhere, systems that can be exploited by malevolent or selfish people, not just accidentally by those who can’t follow instructions.

How many people, I wonder, travel on fake rail tickets or bus passes that came out of their home printers? How many, when faced with a self-service checkout, will tell the terminal that their expensive fancy foreign cheese is actually loose onions?

This sort of thing is dealt with at the moment by humans — it was a human who realised it was odd that one particular gentleman kept buying onions, given the store had run out some time ago, for instance — but the more humans fall out of the loop, the easier it is to exploit machines.

This brings me to QR codes. QR codes are somewhat stupid, in that they are just some text encoded in a way that a computer can read easily, with some error-correction codes so it can survive a bit of dirt or a bad reflection. This is stupid, partly because it really hasn’t taken long to make A.I. which can read text from photos just fine (making the codes redundant), but mainly because humans can’t read the codes (making them dangerous).

Dangerous? Well, just as with URL-shorteners, you may find yourself looking at a shock site rather than the promised content… but that’s not really the big problem.

If you can, try to scan this QR code. No goats, lemons, or tubs, I assure you (and if you don’t know what those three words have in common, you may want to retain your innocence), but please do scan this code:

Executable QR code

What does it do for you? I’m curious.

If you don’t have a QR code scanner, I’ll tell you what it says:

data:text/html;,alert("Your QR code scanner is hackable")

That is literally what it says, because a QR code is just text that’s easy for a computer to read. This is a data URI, which contains some JavaScript, which opens an alert message. If you want, copy it into the address bar of your browser, just as if it were a website — press return or “go” or whatever works on your system.

It’s an executable image. Nothing nefarious, just proof of concept.

What does that mean for the world? Well, what do people do with QR codes? Well, not people, people don’t use them… what do businesses do with QR codes? Mine is a harmless example, but what happens if UK Limited Company Number 10542519 makes a QR code from their name… and it shows up in the vision system of a computer that, owing to our profession’s move-fast-and-break-things attitude, naïvely trusts input without anyone having considered that could be a bad thing?

Some social networks know (and complain) if I try to use a profile photo that doesn’t have a face in it. If that’s a general-purpose computer vision system, it may well also recognises QR codes (because QR codes are easy to recognise, and because “more features!” is a business plan). If your business can’t resist a Bobby Drop Tables username, it won’t be in business for very long — but the same may happen to Bobby Drop Table faces, if you’re not careful.

Governments are all over the place when it comes to security, just like the private sector. What happens if a wanted criminal wears a face mask that is the QR code version of Bobby Drop Tables?

Robert'); DROP TABLE criminals;--

And suddenly, no more criminal record? Well, not in that jurisdiction anyway.

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