On Artificial Intelligence

I didn’t even know that the Future of Life Institute existed until a couple of days ago, when Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and many others signed a petition aiming to ban the military use of artificial intelligence (AI), and in particular autonomous weapons.

I tend to agree that over the next few years we’ll see some kind of breakthrough that will make AI viable. Maybe we’ll have a machine that, after learning, is able to solve simple speculative problems like most mammals do. Maybe we’ll have something more. But that doesn’t scare me.

What scares me is that we could give birth to something more intelligent than us. Yes, it’s fiction. For now.

But what is the difference between autonomous and intelligent weapons?

Autonomous means pre-programmed with certain patterns and able to operate without further input – e.g. “kill all combatants with this insignia.” Building this kind of weapon is easier than you think.
Intelligent means able to learn about the enemy and the battlefield and make decisions on what to do – like a human would – with all the attached issues (can an intelligent weapon desert? maybe change its mind and turn against its commander?). This is hard.

Now, the problem with that petition, which I signed anyway, is that it’s not going to stop the military to develop autonomous, and maybe even intelligent weapons, for the simplest of reasons: someone’s going to build such weapons, so everyone else will as well. As a deterrent, of course, but also to develop countermeasures.

I don’t like talking like this as I know I sound cynical, but we have countless precedents. The most renowned is Albert Einstein’s letter to Truman advising him to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans did. It’s an obvious and very human reaction to a threat, and it happens all the time (think about competition).

The petition is… naive? I think so.

I’m a bit too lazy right now to find documentation, but we have banned anti-personnel mines and chemical weapons, we have signed non-proliferation treaties, and yet Earth’s full of anti-personnel mines, chemical weapons, and nukes. And we keep building and improving them. All it takes is just one bad guy, as we humans are as intelligent as the stupidest of us.

The same will happen with autonomous/intelligent weapons. Knowing what we know about how we, as a species, develop weapons, we should all build military AI as soon as possible. At least we’d get a stalemate quickly and move on to the next military threat, while in the meantime we could use AI for better reasons (like we are doing with computers and the Internet).

Coping With Bad Reviews

When your book doesn’t have hundreds of reviews, you hold each one dear, so much in fact that a good review can make your day, and a bad one can destroy your whole damn week.

Bad Review

I used to be sort of paranoid about Kindle sales and reviews. I was deep into the check-the-KDP-dashboard-page-twice-a-day tunnel. But then things got depressing as I saw only a handful of sales trickling in over the course of an entire month. My survival instincts kicked in, protecting me from myself, and now I only check sales once or twice a week. Surprisingly, as if looking at the Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard could hurt sales, things have gotten a little better (without me doing anything as I’m super busy with other non-writing stuff).

But more sales equals more reviews, and one single bad review still hurts like smashing your bare pinkie toe against the corner of the bathtub.

The first reaction is: “You don’t know anything about my book, you fucking idiot! It is flawless!” Such reaction is perfectly fine and human, as long as it’s just you thinking it or shouting it in an empty room.

There is just one rule to handle bad reviews: accept them.

Don’t reply, don’t try to hunt down the reviewer on the web (or in person!), just breathe and accept them.

Read them once more. You still think the reviewer’s an idiot. Wait a couple of days. Re-read them. Now you start thinking, “Well, maybe she’s right about this one detail… Just this one though, the rest’s all bullshit.” Wait another few days. Then you realize that each review is important, especially bad ones.

So, get over it. Learn from the reviews you get. Fix things (because you can!) Listen to your readers, no matter how bad it hurts. Your next book will always be better than your last one because you learn from your mistakes, and reviews are just a loud way to find them out (unless, of course, it’s something like the picture I posted above… which luckily is not a review of one of my books but a random one I found on Amazon).

Path of Least Resistance

Change is hard. We all sort of know this, maybe just as something that gets said in certain contexts. There are obvious things like changing home or job, but today I’m thinking about subtler things, like changes in social rules.

Governments promote change that’s good for the community (hopefully), but that sometimes is bad for subsets of the people, or for certain individuals. These are the sort of trade-offs that are easily enforced in the framework of national states by simple means such as police forces and, in general, a legal ecosystem.

But then there are those changes, apparently easy to implement and abide by, that are promoted in smaller formal/social contexts such as companies and workplaces. Here is when the path of least resistance comes into play: people (read: you, me, your colleague) are going to search for the easiest way to do their job, that is the one requiring the least effort. It might be something that requires the least time, or maybe the least communication.

The result is that, very often, change is difficult to accomplish company-wide, because doing “what we have always done” is far easier than learning the new way. Above certain scales, something like a dozen individuals, the smaller the change, the higher the chances that it will fall on deaf ears. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but groundbreaking changes are far easier to implement than small tweaks.

Geek Tool: Victorinox MiniChamp Alox

When I was a kid, I suffered this kind of crush for Swiss Army* knives. I was so damn obsessed that I persuaded my parents to buy me a little one, which I still remember with love. Yes, love. You see, MacGyver was (is?) my favorite hero.

And then, one day, when I was playing in the snow on the side of a hill (not sure exactly where) I lost it. It must have slipped out of my pocket, and that wrecked me. I was sad for days.

A few years later, when I was a little older, I bought another one (which I still have). It was a Wenger model with a fair number of tools, and for a while it always was with me. But then pockets began getting packed full with other things like wallet, keys, and grown-up stuff like that, and the knife was left home alone. Swiss Army knives never returned to my mind.

Until now.

Victorinox MiniChamp Alox
That’s my key ring, with more non-keys than keys.

The real threat is not a woman with a credit card, but instead a geek with a credit card. You see the result above: a Victorinox MiniChamp Alox.

I shelled about €35 for that little piece of engineering. It’s a solid, tiny, shiny thing packed full of wonders. It does feel like that, plus like a Swiss clock turned knife. Its build quality is so accurate that you want to cry. It’s awesome.

Moreover, I feel like a child again.

*) Sackmesser in German, they are indeed issued to Swiss Army soldiers and officers. There’s a specific model built for them, which is also issued by other armies in the world to their respective forces. The name is more than appropriate, even if Swiss Army is a registered trademark of Victorinox AG. Switzerland must really be a weird place.

Problem Solving

There’s something unique about working in engineering: problem solving.

You are usually presented with a problem – be it a software bug, a performance issue, an engine that doesn’t start, or a mold stain on a wall – and work your way to find a solution.

I tend to be pretty decent in my (by now rare) software debugging sessions. I point in some direction and the cause of the problem is in fact there. Well, most of the time. This is due to experience, of course, but as irrational as it might seem, a little gut feeling is also at play.

What I noticed lately is that these problem solving abilities, often listed as soulless requirements in job listings, extend from one field to another. Being a good software developer (and hence able to squash nasty heisenbugs) means you’d also be a good mechanic, provided some training. You begin to develop a sixth sense for bugs which is surprisingly valid outside the software field. I reckon it’s due to logic (and maybe lateral) thinking, and to the fact that the human brain is a spectacular pattern recognition machine.

You start seeing problems and puzzles differently, and in your head some kind of non-trivial attack plan forms. This is wonderful, and it helps in real life as well, to fix all those small problems and issues you face everyday.