Movie review – I, Robot

January 10th, 2015

60036238[Yes, the 2004 version; I just saw it.]

For decades, movies about humans vs. aliens or humans vs. robots were thinly veiled parables about racism, xenophobia, loving thy neighbor, etc.

Especially so if one of the main characters is black.

No spoilers here, but at the start of this movie Will Smith’s character hates robots. Hates them for no obvious reason.

But this movie is not about racism or foreigners, or anything even vaguely like that. It is actually about robots.

By the end of the movie, Smith no longer hates robots. But not because he’s learned to be a better person. Oh, no, that is not the reason at all. Because this movie is not about that – it’s about intelligent machines.

I won’t say more – see it. But this movie rejects many standard Hollywood tropes and comes up with something genuinely fresh. And it shows that at least some people in Hollywood (Will Smith, anyway – who is also a co-producer) are able to make movies – even starring black people – about things other than racism. Imagine that!

And it has some important things to say about robots – things that may not occur to you until the next day after you see it.

It’s not an Asimov story – it just takes his robot stories as background. But I think Asimov would have liked it (so will Nick Bostrom).

It’s not a perfect movie, so one star off for that. But see it. 4/5 stars.

Reshaping DNA

May 30th, 2012

This is perhaps the most unintentionally spooky ad I’ve ever seen.

…China asked us to examine the DNA of their workforce and reshape it for the future.

I’m quite sure they don’t mean that. But just the thought is quite creepy.

It’s from the May 19 2012 US edition of The Economist:

Power laws

December 19th, 2009

There’s a story on Slashdot today about “a complicated pattern that has to do with the way humans do violence in some collective way“.

Surprise.  The size and frequency of terrorist attacks follows a power law – lots of little attacks, a few big ones.

What doesn’t?  Quoting from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_distribution:

  • The sizes of human settlements (few cities, many hamlets/villages)
  • File size distribution of Internet traffic which uses the TCP protocol (many smaller files, few larger ones)
  • Clusters of Bose-Einstein condensate near absolute zero
  • The values of oil reserves in oil fields (a few large fields, many small fields)
  • The length distribution in jobs assigned supercomputers (a few large ones, many small ones)
  • The standardized price returns on individual stocks
  • Sizes of sand particles
  • Sizes of meteorites
  • Numbers of species per genus (There is subjectivity involved: The tendency to divide a genus into two or more increases with the number of species in it)
  • Areas burnt in forest fires
  • Severity of large casualty losses for certain lines of business such as general liability, commercial auto, and workers compensation.
  • I could add a bunch more, but won’t bother.

    Why is this considered news?  Why does it get published in Nature?  If terrorist activity didn’t follow a power law, I think that would be interesting enough to merit publication in a prestigious journal.  But this?

    Is it just me, or is the quality of editorial work in science journals dropping?  I constantly see papers in Science and Nature that make the most basic scientific mistake possible – confusing correlation with causality.  And then the “quality” press such as the New York Times and the Economist pick it up and repeat the same nonsense.

    See also:

    Letter to The Economist sent 2009-05-03.  I’m guessing they won’t print it – it’s too far from the mainstream.  (Also, my Hayekian slant is showing; few people get it.)  We’ll see.

    Update May 25 – I was wrong.  They printed it in the May 14 issue, with some unfortunate editing.

    Dear Sir:

    You say (Briefing – Central Banks, 25 April) “The business cycle was supposedly subdued, yet the world is in the deepest recession since the 1930s.”

    Indeed.  Perhaps there is a connection.

    For many decades, forest fires were suppressed by well-meaning officials.  Fuel was allowed to build up, eventually resulting in far more devastating fires than would have occurred naturally.  Today we allow fires to serve their necessary functions, while making efforts to limit damage to people and property.

    I suspect the business cycle, and attempts to subdue it, are much the same – deadwood must be cleared out, inefficient practices curbed.  The economy, like an ecology, is far more complex than we can comprehend; attempts to control it are more than likely to produce unintended results.

    Why journalism is so bad

    October 27th, 2008

    A friend forwarded me Orson Scott Card’s recent essay Would the Last Honest Reporter Please Turn On the Lights?, in which Card complains about journalistic bias (in this case, concerning the causes of the mortgage loan crisis).

    Card writes:

    If you had any personal honor, each reporter and editor would be insisting on telling the truth — even if it hurts the election chances of your favorite candidate.

    Because that’s what honorable people do. Honest people tell the truth even when they don’t like the probable consequences. That’s what honesty means. That’s how trust is earned.

    Card is a great science fiction writer (if you haven’t heard of him, go read Ender’s Game), but oddly, he seems to expect journalists to care about the truth.

    I’m guessing he didn’t study journalism in school.

    Professional journalists are trained to worry about “fairness”, not truth.  Reality, they are told, is socially constructed, and there is no such thing as objective truth.

    Fairness means reporting “both sides” of a story even when there are 3 or 4 sides, or when it’s obvious who is lying and who isn’t.

    If journalists were interested in truth, they wouldn’t pretend to be impartial (they’re human, of course they have opinions of their own).  Instead they’d openly admit their viewpoint and let the reader judge their arguments.

    There are still countless newspapers in the US with “Republican” or “Democrat” in their title.  I suspect the relatively high esteem which journalists enjoy is a legacy from the era when these newspapers were founded.

    Before the rise of “professional” journalism in the middle of the 20th century, truth was assumed to exist (even if it was difficult to find), and publishers were proud to announce their political allegiance.

    Today NPR, that bastion of reasoned, intelligent and thoughtful reporting (as opposed to the crass celebrity-and-sensation commercial outlets) ran a typically panicky story about the documentary “Two Million Minutes”.

    According to NPR, the film illustrates the looming downfall of American society as children in developing countries study and learn vastly more in school than their US counterparts. As a result, the next generation of Americans will be illiterate, innumerate, and utterly ignorant of science, history and geography. The sky will fall and Americans will be reduced to foot-washers and burger-cookers to Asian technocrats.

    Two points.

    First, economics is not a zero sum game. Other countries becoming more productive – even more productive than Americans are – does not hurt the US standard of living.

    While it’s certainly true that American primary and secondary schools are pitiful (because they lack competition – compare America’s excellent, and highly competitive, colleges and universities), still, panic is not called for. Productivity determines living standards – nothing else. Americans are becoming more productive, not less, even if other countries are catching up.

    Economics is not war. There are no “winners” and “losers” – everyone gets what they produce, be it great or small, and regardless of what others get.

    It’s natural that countries like China and India, which still experience poverty that makes even the poorest Americans appear middle-class, are struggling very hard to improve their standard of living; much harder than Americans do or need to. This is admirable, but eventually when these countries catch up to first-world living standards undoubtedly they, too, will start taking some time to smell the flowers.

    Second – education only goes so far. The brightest people will always be able to learn what they need to know without much effort, and the dumbest, sadly, will not be able to learn much no matter what effort is put into education. All nations have their share of genius and idiocy.