Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Way the Future Was - Part 3

This is a third posting from the report of the 1984 Mensa Conference at Cambridge, by Paul Johnson, and written up for "Thinks!", the Channel Island Mensa Magazine edited by Ken Webb, with assistant editor being myself.

The biologist who gave the talk here was Brian Ford, who is still around today, with a string of fellowships and awards to his name; he also publishes on scientific issues for the general public and has been a populariser of science on TV for more than 40 years. He has a mischievous iconoclastic streak which led to him deliberately giving one of his books the longest and most complex title in English-language publishing history:

Nonscience and the Pseudotransmogrificationalific Egocentrified Reorientational Proclivities Inherently Intracorporated In Expertistical Cerebrointellectualised Redeploymentation with Special Reference to Quasi-Notional Fashionistic Normativity, The Indoctrinationalistic Methodological Modalities and Scalar Socio-Economic Promulgationary Improvementalisationalism Predelineated Positotaxically Toward Individualistified Mass-Acceptance Gratificationalistic Securipermanentalisationary Professionism, or How To Rule The World,

The point of the title was to poke fun at those who conceal their lack of real expertise by using long and complicated words, whilst making the serious point that more people are fooled by these so-called experts than really should be. The book is commonly referred to simply as Nonscience, which is itself a play on nonsense. (1)

It was not surprising perhaps, that he should clash with Clive Sinclair over Artificial Intelligence. The 1980s saw the rise of the dominant mythology of our day, which is still present today, that the human brain resembled a complex computer. A biologist would see the large gap between the complexity of biology, and the model so rapidly (and uncritically) seized upon by the home computer pioneers such as Clive Sinclair.

What is machine intelligence? The cleverest definition of "artificial intelligence" was devised by one of the cleverest computer scientists to have lived, Alan Turing. He suggested in 1951 a test which he called "The Imitation Game". It has the beautiful simplicity that one might expect from a mathematician, and it neatly does away with the appearance of the machine, which is irrelevant to the problem:

The first version of the game he explained involved no computer intelligence whatsoever. Imagine three rooms, each connected via computer screen and keyboard to the others. In one room sits a man, in the second a woman, and in the third sits a person - call him or her the "judge". The judge's job is to decide which of the two people talking to him through the computer is the man. The man will attempt to help the judge, offering whatever evidence he can (the computer terminals are used so that physical clues cannot be used) to prove his man-hood. The woman's job is to trick the judge, so she will attempt to deceive him, and counteract her opponent's claims, in hopes that the judge will erroneously identify her as the male.

What does any of this have to do with machine intelligence? Turing then proposed a modification of the game, in which instead of a man and a woman as contestants, there was a human, of either gender, and a computer at the other terminal. Now the judge's job is to decide which of the contestants is human, and which the machine. Turing proposed that if, under these conditions, a judge were less than 50% accurate, that is, if a judge is as likely to pick either human or computer, then the computer must be a passable simulation of a human being and hence, intelligent. The game has been recently modified so that there is only one contestant, and the judge's job is not to choose between two contestants, but simply to decide whether the single contestant is human or machine. (2)

Clive Sinclair in the 1970s and early 1980s was always dreaming of a better computer that would rival the human brain. This was, after all, the person who gave the world the Sinclair ZX81, which the advertising blurb stated could do "quite literally anything, from playing chess to running a power station"! In fact, as the Guardian notes, somewhat tongue in cheek, it was a hobby toy for games for boys:

Things really took off when the ZX became the Spectrum in 1982, and colour games such as Jet Set Willy became the second major activity in teenage bedrooms. (3)

It is strange to notice that he has now turned his back on computers, and uses  the telephone in preference to email. In an interview, he told the reporter how he doesn't use modern PCs. Is it really laziness, or perhaps a lingering jealously at the machines that drove his own valiant little Heath Robinson efforts out of existence?

And what computer does he now use himself?
"I don't use a computer at all. The company does."
"So you don't do email?"
"No. I've got people to do it for me."
"If friends and family want to communicate?"
"They can do that. We've got a computer in the front office, but I get someone to do it for me."
"That seems odd to me. Why is that?"
"Sheer laziness I think. I can't be bothered."
"Do you not know how to operate it?"
"I do know how to, but I don't."
"Sorry to press, but it seems the simplest thing in the world to do your own emails."
"Well I find them annoying. I'd much prefer someone would telephone me if they want to communicate. No, it's not sheer laziness - I just don't want to be distracted by the whole process. Nightmare."

Report by Paul Johnson

3rd August

The morning lecture was from Brian Ford, a microbiologist. He was concerned with futurology as much as with the staggering variety of living organisms. He did mention a very strong doubt that machines could ever rival their complexity, and showed slides of various microbes with primitive eyes and nervous systems to support this.

Sir Clive disputed this point of view, and I joined the lively argument over this after the lecture.

The afternoon was given over to Professor Ian Barron, head of INMOS, the government electronics firm. He talked of how Sir Clive's dream of a "meta-computer" might be brought about and went on to talk about the latest chip his company has produced. It is effectively a computer on a single chip, complete with communications to other similar "transputers", a small memory and a 32 bit architecture (current computers use 8 or 16 bits). It can handle several jobs at once, and if it went too slow, more chips could be hooked in and the jobs shared between the old and the new.

He also talked of the way these chips are designed. The usual way is to construct a circuitry which looks as if it should work, and then to test it exhaustively. At INMOS, mathematical languages are used to prove that
there are no bugs, a quicker and more reliable approach.

During the afternoon Victor Serebriakoff held a "Think-in"; an unstructured discussion on the broad subject of artificial intelligence. Discussion ranged over many topics, including the possibility that machines might be able to have souls.

That evening Sir Clive held what he euphemistically termed a "garden party" at his Cambridge house. It started off with a barbeque and buffet supper, and continued with the Kings College singers giving a very enjoyable concert, and a disco which broke up at about 1.30 a.m.


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