Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘futurism’

11 MARCH, 2011

Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine & the Quest to Know Everything

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What the perceived masculinity of robots has to do with the future of human knowledge.

Earlier this month, we looked at the superhuman capacities of the human brain, from the quest to hack memory and remember everything to the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant. For the past four years, IBM scientists have been putting their own very human minds together to build the ultimate superhuman artificial intelligence: A supercomputer known as Watson. In an ultimate litmus test for Watson’s computational cognition, they set out to prep and pit it against the world’s best players in a round of Jeopardy. And they granted one man rare access to document it all: Journalist Stephen Baker.

In Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, he captures the fascinating process of trying to teach a machine language, knowledge and common sense, wrapped in a narrative that reads part like a sports story, with its riveting championship ups and downs, and part like the living incarnation of yesteryear’s science fiction, but is at its heart about the passion for and future of human knowledge.

Jeopardy is just a showcase for a new type of machine. Look, we’re going to be living with these things, working with them, and using them as external lobes of our brains. Final Jeopardy follows the education of one such machine. Readers, I’m hoping, will get a feel for its potential as well as its limitations. And that will help them understand what skills and knowledge they’ll need to carry around in their own heads. Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll enjoy the story.” ~ Stephen Baker

Watson and Google are very different animals. Google uses your brain to help you find an answer. It asks you for really, really clear instructions that a computer can understand, and then it leads you to a webpage and leaves it up to you to find the answer. Watson, on the other hand, has to make sense of the English itself, the really complex English of a Jeopardy clue. Then it has to hunt, find an answer, and determine if it has confidence that it’s the right answer or not, and whether it has enough confidence to bet on it. It’s a much more sophisticated process.” ~ Stephen Baker

Amazon has a revealing Q&A with the author and Omnivoracious has an excellent twopart podcast, where Baker talks about the fascinating ins-and-outs of this monumental quest.

There was lots of debate within IBM about Watson’s name and image. How human should it be? Many worried that the public would view Watson as scary: a machine that learns our secrets and steals our jobs. So they decided to limit Watson’s human qualities. They would give its friendly, masculine avoice a machine-like overtone. And its face, if you could call it that, would simply be a circular avatar—no eyes, nose or mouth, just streaming patterns representing flowing data. Despite these choices, I’ve noticed that fellow Jeopardy players immediately start to respond to Watson as another human — and not necessarily a friendly one. It’s playing the game, after all. And it usually beats them.” ~ Stephen Baker

Absorbing, dynamic and just the right amount of uncomfortable, Final Jeopardy is as much a rigorously researched lens for the process of sicence and technology as it is a subtle yet palpable moral and philosophical inquiry into the future of humanity.

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04 MARCH, 2011

Worldchanging: An Updated Vision for a Better World

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Since 2003, Alex Steffen’s nonprofit online magazine Worldchanging has been a beacon of sustainability, social innovation and thought-leadership in bettering our planet’s future. In 2006, this essential toolkit for conscious modern living was packaged in Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a densely informative 600-page synthesis of the iconic site, dubbed The Whole Earth Catalog for the iPod generation. At the time, sustainability was just a budding meme, which over the past five years evolved into an essential part, and some would argue a bare minimum, for our cultural ethos. This week, Worldchanging is back with Worldchanging, Revised and Updated Edition: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century — a timely compendium of the smartest strategies and most exciting new tools for building a better future.

One of the book’s most valuable aspects for us, given our deep fascination with and passion for urbanism, is its insightful angle on cities as living organisms capable of catalyzing social change.

The first Worldchanging book looked at the most creative and high-impact solutions available for solving the planet’s most pressing problems. WC2.0 takes the same solutions approach, but raises the bar, asking how we can participate as individuals in creating systemic change.” ~ Alex Steffen

From food justice to carbon-neutral homes to alternative transportation, the Worldchanging, Revised and Updated features 160 noteworthy ideas and vital solutions that maybe, just maybe, offer real, tangible hope for a world we’ve cornered into near-hopeless vulnerability.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

24 FEBRUARY, 2011

5 Must-Read Books by TED 2011 Speakers

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What doodling has to do with the evolution of consciousness and the raw beauty of the Arctic.

Last year, our selection of 7 must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers was one our most popular articles of 2010. Today, as we prepare for next week’s big event, we’re back with 5 essential reads by TED 2011 speakers, once again litmus-tested for brilliance in the world’s most reliable quality-control lab: the TED stage.

SELF COMES TO MIND

You may recall iconic neuroscientist Antonio Damasio from his insights on what it means to be human. Published last fall, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is his ambitious exploration of the underpinnings of the self. From distilling cognitive phenomena like creativity and memory to illuminating vital distinctions like brain vs. mind and self vs. consciousness, Damasio does for neuroscience what Malcolm Gladwell does for business, synthesizing complex notions and rigorous research into a digestible, absorbing narrative. The book is a surprisingly worthy follow-up to Damasio’s excellent, impossibly unmatchable 2005 Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.

AS THE FUTURE CATCHES YOU

Harvard Business School professor and futurist Juan Enriquez, whose Homo Evolutis was one of last month’s revolutionary first crop of TEDBooks, is a thoughtful observer of the profound cultural and biological changes that genomics and other life sciences are sweeping through society. In As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth, he takes a provocative look at the trajectory of technological progress, contextualizing scientific milestones in relative historical terms that help us grasp the true scale of innovation that surrounds us. (He argues, for instance, that February 2, 2001 — the date that anyone with Internet access could access the entire human genome — is equivalent in magnitude of importance to Columbus’s 1492 discovery of America.)

Sample Enriquez’s genius with his excellent 2009 TED talk on how the evolution of technology is impacting the financial crisis:

Besides the compelling thinking, the As the Future Catches You is a beautiful experience in and of itself, adorned with sophisticated typography and eye-popping graphics. Enriquez has purposely left blank pages for your notes in an effort to stress that the issue is an ongoing conversation with no conclusive answers, inviting you to partake in its intellectual exploration.

GAMESTORMING

We’re big proponents of the value of play in enhancing creativity, productivity and well-being. And while most people have an intuitive understanding of this correlation, it remains a taboo in the formal world of business. In Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, visual thinker and tinkerer Sunni Brown, along with co-authors Dave Gray and James Macanufo, makes a compelling case for the tangible, practical applications of play in business, applying game mechanics to revolutionize business models and work environments across a remarkably wide spectrum of industries.

The book features 83 actual, playable games designed specifically for honing the creative process, facilitating problem-solving, overcoming organizational tensions, and even making meetings shorter and more productive. Playful and pragmatic, the book is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Bill Gates is no stranger to TED. But while the world may have had more than its fair share of Gates exposure in recent decades, it’s undeniable that the iconic geek is a bold visionary. To truly appreciate his keen grasp of the future, we need only look at the past: Published more than 15 years ago, The Road Ahead is a priceless compendium of insights from Gates, who predicts the development and application of present-day information technology with astounding accuracy and further projects its future in shaping our lives with the provocative vision of a true entrepreneur. From personal computing to business to education, the book is both a rare timecapsule of the dawn of ubiquitous computing and an extraordinary lens for what lies ahead.

Sample the book’s retrofuturistic genius with this teaser about Gates’ 1995 vision for the future of education:

POLAR OBSESSION

Naturalist and wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen grew up in one of the only non-Inuit families on Baffin Island, Nunavut, in a tiny native settlement in the sprawling ice fields of Northern Canada. In Polar Obsession, he reconnects with his roots in a striking and powetic visual ode to the Arctic at the intersection of art and science. At once a bittersweet portrait of climate change and a passionate call to action in honoring the incredible planet we inhabit, the book is a visceral and deeply alive reminder of just what’s at stake as we talk about a topic so chronically overpoliticized and sterilized of aliveness.

A kittiwake soars in front of a large iceberg. Svalbard, Norway

Looking towards an uncertain future, a huge male bear triggers a camera trap, taking his own picture. Leifdefjorden, Spitsbergen, Norway

A gentoo penguin chick peeks, checking for patrolling leopard seals before tempting fate. Port Lockroy, Antarctic Peninsula

Mother bear and two-year-old cub drift on glacier ice. Hudson Strait, Nunavut, Canada

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23 FEBRUARY, 2011

Visions of the Future: Isaac Asimov’s Unrealized Pilot

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What vintage computers have to do with unrealized TV series and the future of humanity.

We love iconic science fiction author and futurist Isaac Asimov, whose keen insights on creativity in education were a favorite last month. Two years before his death, Asimov recorded a pilot for a TV series synthesizing his visionary ideas about where humanity is going. When he passed away in 1992, the pilot for the series was adapted into a tribute documentary titled Visions of the Future, now available on YouTube in four parts, totaling 40 minutes of rare footage and biographical background on the great thinker.

The series was intended to cover new breakthroughs in science and technology, preparing people for the coming future — essentially, the antithesis to the Future Shock series narrated by Orson Welles.

Most fascinating of all are Asimov’s thoughts on computers, which may seem like common sense today but in fact presage the modern applications of computing, from mobile technology to consumer electronics to artificial intelligence, by two decades.

Perhaps the most revolutionary development of recent years has been that of the computer. Because for the first time we’ve discovered a machine that can substitute, at least in part, the human brain. Before that, it was just a matter of saving human muscles, of using machinery to spare what human muscles couldn’t do very well.” ~ Isaac Asimov

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