Learning Darts

I bought a dartboard a month ago to give me something to fidget with while thinking. Rather than struggle with cricket or any “real” dart game, I’ve been training myself with a game I call “golf.” I go around the numbers in the board, and if I hit the target number in 3 throws, that’s “par.” If I hit two targets in 3 throws, that’s “a birdie,” 3 targets with 3 is an “eagle,” and if I miss in 3 throws, that’s a “bogey” (yes, this is asymmetrical. I said I was a beginner, didn’t I?) Today I went around the board and made “par.” Hurray for me.

We will now return to our regular programming…

Spammers Using My Domain In Reply-To. I Hate Spammers.

Recently, I’ve seen a huge jump in “Undeliverable mail” messages coming through my mail server. I’ve double-checked that I’m not relaying and checked a couple return path IPs, so I know that it’s just jerks spoofing the “Reply-To” header, but it makes me sick to have my domains in any way associated with this crap.


I, Patent Troll

In the dot-com days, my work led to three, count ’em, three patent applications. In all cases, I’d signed over the IP rights to the company. Both companies went bankrupt before the patents went through, leaving me to understand that the IP is now the property of creditors, who were free to auction it off or use it to create their own chimerical success story or, most likely, throw the CD in the bottom-drawer and wait for it to oxidize.

Anyway, I’m kind of jealous that I don’t have a patent. My brother has a great one — you know when they use a cotton swab on your laptop at the airport? Thank Steve O’Brien.

So I’ve been thinking that, in my copious spare time, I should get myself a patent. Sure, if they go through on the first pass (doubtful), it’ll cost around $1,000 in filing fees. But, hey, which would give me more pleasure, a patent or two-thirds of a cheap HDTV? Of course, I could spend thousands of dollars on a patent attorney, but while I’m sure there are good patent attorneys that are worth every penny, I strongly suspect that a cheap patent attorney is like a cheap tax-preparer: you still do the same amount of work explaining and checking as you’d do if you file yourself. (That was certainly my experience previously.)

The nice thing about patents is that the full text of granted patents are available. It’s not that hard to parse out the specialized syntax and, while it’s unquestionable that I could misuse a term of art, the patent office has given patents to combovers ; is it really likely to ding me on my sloppiness with the word “whereby”?

Coming up with patentable ideas is easy. (30-second pause.) Automatic ranking of dart-throwing skill by means of a neural net. A lava-escape device consisting of a highly heat-resistant snowboard. A means of swinging from a substantially horizontal tree branch. (Oops)

Of course, I’ll probably never spend the time to actually write a patent, but if I do, I’ll blog the process here.



Ultra-ambitious “Made in Express” Finalists Reveal Newbie Programmer Expectations of AI

Microsoft is running a contest called “Made in Express” that will pay out $10,000 to the best application written in Microsoft’s entry-level version of Visual Studio. The proposals chosen as finalists are, to put it kindly, ambitious: an AI psychotherapist (assuming that the person doesn’t just cut-and-paste Eliza); an autonomous robot capable of traversing rough terrain; a poker bot simulator with drag-and-drop AI. There are others that are more feasible (the one I like is the “absurd comparisons” calculator: how many hummingbirds weigh as much as a blue whale?).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how people learn programming, and it’s very interesting to note how these programmers (who know enough about programming to find and enter the contest) have, let’s say “unrealistic” understandings of AI and machine sensing. If you think about it, it’s not absurd for someone to say “Hey, I hear Tablet PCs understand handwriting, I hear speech recognition is almost there, therefore, how hard could it be to include ‘3D stereo vision’ in my contest entry?” Except, sadly, it is absurd.

Once upon a time, I did AI “technology transfer” work: basically, translating LISP-based algorithms into (primarily) C and C++-based algorithms (it’s one reason I believe Sapir-Whorf applies to programming languages). I haven’t in a long time, but I try to track development and I have a fair understanding of progress in the field. We are so friggin’ far from a computational model of mental states that it’s laughable (alternately, it’s humbling).

AI is decades behind genetics in terms of a model. At least we know how DNA codes. And, until recently, we believed that there was something approaching a 1:1 correspondence between genes and functions. Until we starting sequencing genomes a few years ago and discovered that there are many, many fewer genes in a genome than there are traits in an organism. Even with DNA-based genetics, which is an incredible natural computational abstraction, it turns out that reality is complex. Even chaotic in the sense of depending on environmental starting conditions. (The idea that “well, the genome didn’t explain as much as we thought, but the proteome (our protein complement) will,” is equally hubristic and short-sighted.)

And just as we can assemble certain helpful drugs based on biologics, even with our incredibly limited understanding of how those biologics came to be, we can compute certain helpful functions (handwriting, speech) with a vastly more limited understanding how we do it natively. But at least with DNA we have a (limited) model of how things move from small to large. With cognition and perception, we have nothing even close, just very, very general theories.

For instance, there seems to be widespread agreement that “minds are what brains do.” Further, I think most researchers would probably more-or-less agree that mental states are the work of specialized, individually non-accessible subsystems working in parallel, whose complex (and chaotic) interactions construct higher-level systems. I hope that’s enough for that guy to create the Web-based psychotherapist.

Then we have this mechanistic understanding of neurons which, just like DNA, have these features which can be modeled computationally. And a lot of fascinating research is coming from functional imaging, so we’re beginning to understand the physical structures associated with mental states. But, I guarantee you, the way that mental states arise from neurons will turn out to be far, far more messy and complex and contingent and filled with feedback loops and dependent on environmental conditions than the way living organisms arise from DNA.

And don’t even get me started on consciousness.