Saturday, March 14, 2009

What are the biological requirements for intelligence?

For some time I have wondered about the differences between plants and animals, two distinct "kingdoms." Maybe someday I'll have enough spare time to look into the matter (so to speak.) A variation of that question popped into my mind today: What are the biological requirements for intelligence? Man evolved intelligence in the animal kingdom. What specifically enabled that evolution of intelligence in man? Not the "pop", superficial explanations, but what exactly is it that permits man to exhibit intelligence? Put another way, why were plants unable to evolve in a parallel manner into "intelligent" individuals? Are there in fact biological requirements for intelligence that only the animal kingdom has to offer? Or, could intelligence, in theory, occur in plants through some path of evolution within the plant kingdom? In any case, in short, what exactly are the biological requirements for intelligence? And I do mean intelligence in the sense of human-level intelligence. That does beg the question of other forms of "intelligence" that may be wholly incomparable to human intelligence.

Now, this also broaches on the question of machine intelligence, computational intelligence, or artificial intelligence. If in fact there are biological requirements for intelligence, can those requirements in fact be met by non-biological entities such as computers as we know them. Of course that does beg the question of whether we could simply develop a computer program which is a simulator for biological life. That then raises the question of whether plants could evolve a machine-like structure which in fact was such a simulator for animal life.

In any case, we are left with the question of what the requirements would be for human-level intelligence in machines, and whether there may be biological functions that cannot easily (or maybe even possibly) be simulated in machines.

By "machines", I mean computers as we know them today, a device which can execute what we call computer programs or computer software.

That begs two questions. First, are there radically difference computer software architectures that might enable programming of human-level intelligence? Second, are there radically different device architectures which would permit software architectures that cannot easily (or maybe even possibly at all) be developed with computer devices as we know them.

To phrase the initial question another way, could we in theory genetically engineer plants to develop forms of intelligence?

More abstractly, could another "kingdom" develop which was neither plant nor animal, but capable of exhibiting human-level intelligence? Maybe in another solar system, another galaxy, or a parallel universe? Or, is there in fact some fundamentally basic requirement for intelligence which even in theory can only be satisfied within the animal kingdom?

One final question... What biological requirements would need to be met for artificial devices, presumably capable of reproduction by themselves, to in fact be considered "biological" and a new "kingdom" paralleling the animal and plant kingdoms?

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Wolfram Alpha - computational knowledge engine

Wolfram Research (Stephen Wolfram) is on the verge of unveiling a new project called "Alpha" which is billed as a "computational knowledge engine." It combines the computational power of Mathematica with tools to "explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable" to be able to "take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do" and "handle all the shorthand notations that people in every possible field use." Wolfram says:

... I'm happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we're actually managing to make it work.

He does add the caveat that:

And -- like Mathematica, or NKS -- the project will never be finished.

But he triumphantly announces that:

... I'm happy to say that we've almost reached the point where we feel we can expose the first part of it.

It's going to be a website: With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.

Having a simple Google-like search engine box is all well and good, but the real question is the extent to which the engine is "open", both in terms of programmatic API and Web Services access and integrating with external data.

How it compares with and meshes with the Semantic Web remains to be seen.

In any case, this does sound like a significant leap forward

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thoughts on identity

I was just thinking a little about my concept of Distributed Virtual Personal Data Storage (DVPDS) and the issue of personal identity. Currently, online "digital" identity is typically accomplished with a valid email address, an "id", a password, and a display name. Sure, that works for many applications, but it has limitations. In particular, there is no way to determine whether the display name is "correct" and there is no way to determine if the display name matches the real person it names. For DVPDS to be truly robust, identity must be robust. Granted, there may be valid reasons for hiding the true identity of an online user, but ultimately there is a need to prevent identity theft as well as valid law enforcement and court access.

I see personal identity as having several components:

  1. Natural identity. Who you really are. At a philosophical level "how God knows you", or how other people know you.
  2. Legal identity. How government knows you.
  3. Your full legal name. Your literal name, but even that may not be unique.
  4. Your common name. What you might typially use as your display name. May use a nickname, leave out middle name and suffixes, etc.
  5. Other real identification. Including social security number, drivers license, address.
  6. Online identification. Including user name or id, password, email address, etc.

It is perfectly reasonable to have aliases or multiple online identities, but some applications may require access to a robust personal identity as well, or maybe a link to a robust personal identity even if the user chooses to deny the application access to the details.

In addition to personal identity, organizations, including businesses, can have their own identity, an organization identity.

And, individuals can have roles within organizations. Multiple people can have the same role within a single organization. An individual can have multiple roles within a single organization. An individual can have roles in multiple organizations.

We need methods for role identity which link individuals, organizations, and their roles. Role identity must be robust. There need to be validation processes for role identity.

The point of all of this is that a Distributed Virtual Personal Data Storage solution needs to identify who controls and has access to data and it needs to be very robust and resistent to identity theft.

-- Jack Krupansky

Amazon Kindle - if a software agent reads a book aloud is that a performance or the creation of a derivative work?

The recent uproar over the read-aloud feature of the new Amazon Kindle book reading device has raised some fascinating questions related to the definition and interpretation of the concepts of a performance and a derivative work, as well as the concept of licensed use. I would add that this dispute also raises the issue of the role and status of software agents.

An article in Ars Technica by Julian Sanchez entitled "Kindles and "creative machines" blur boundaries of copyright" does a decent jobs of covering both the pros and cons and legal nuances of the "rights" for electronically reading a book aloud.

I have read a lot of the pro and con arguments, but I am not prepared to utter a definitive position at this time.

I would note that there is a "special" context for the entire debate: the ongoing "culture war" between the traditional world view of people, places, and things and the so-called "digital" world view, whether it be online with the Web or interactive within a computer system. Clearly there are parallels between the real and "virtual" worlds, but also there are differences. Rational people will recognize and respect the parallels even as they recognize and respect the differences. Alas, there is a point of view that insists that the virtual worlds (online and interactive) should not be constrained in any way by the real-world world view.

The simple truth is that the real and virtual worlds can in fact coexist separately, but the problem comes when we try to blend the two worlds and pass artifacts between them. Then, the separateness breaks down. The Kindle is a great example, with real-world books being "passed" into the digital world and then the act of electronically reading them aloud passing back from the digital world to the real world.

It is also interesting to note that many books are now actually created in the virtual world (word processing, storage, transmission, digital printing) even if not intended specifically as so-called e-books, so that physical books themselves in fact typically originated in a virtual world. Clearly the conception of the book occurs in the mind of the author and the editors, but the actual "assembly" of all of the fragments from the minds of authors and editors into the image of the book occurs in the virtual world.

In any case, my interest is in the role of software agents. A software agent is a computer program which possesses the quality of agency or acting for another entity. The Kindle read-aloud feature is clearly a software agent. Now, the issue is whose agent is it. The consumer? Amazon? The book author? The publisher?

The superficially simple question is who "owns" the software agent.

We speak of "buying" books, even e-books, but although the consumer does in fact "buy" the physical manifestation, they are in fact only licensing the "use" of the intellectual property embodied in that physical representation. You do in fact "own" the ones and zeros of the e-book or the paper and ink of the meatspace book, but you do not own all uses except as covered by the license that you agreed to at the time of acquisition of the bits. Clearly not everyone likes or agrees with that model, but a license is a contract and there are laws related to contracts. Clearly there are also disputes about what the contract actually covers or what provisions are enforceable. That is why we have courts.

So, the consumer owns the bits of the read-aloud software agent, and the consumer may have some amount of control over the behavior of that software agent, but ownership and interaction are not the same thing.

I would suggest that the read-aloud software agent still belongs to Amazon since it remains a component of the Kindle product. A Kindle reading a book aloud is not the same as a parent reading a book to a child or a teacher reading to a class (or the reading in the movie The Reader), in particular because it is Amazon's agent that is doing the reading.

An interesting variation would be an open source or public domain version of Kindle as downloadable software for the PC, or software with features different from Kindle for that matter. Who "owns" any software agents embedded in that software? Whose agent is doing the performance? Whose agent is creating derivative works? To me, the immediate answer is who retains the intellectual property rights to the agent. In the Kindle case, Amazon is not attempting to transfer all rights. Even if they did, there is the same question as with file-sharing software, whether there is some lingering implied liability that goes along even when ownership is transferred.

Another open issue would be software agents which completely generate content from scratch dynamically, not from some input such as an e-book data stream. Who owns that content? I would suggest that the superficial answer is that the owner of the agent owns "created" (non-derivative) content, except as they may have licensed transfer of ownership of such content.

Another issue is whether a "stream" can be considered a representation. I would think so. One could also consider it a performance of an implied representation. Whether each increment of data in the stream is stored may not be particularly relevant. The stream has most of the "effect" of a full representation.

Another issue is trying to discover the intent or spirit of the law as opposed to the exact letter of the law. Sure, there are plenty of loopholes and gotchas that do in fact matter when in a courtroom, but ultimately I would think that it is the intentions that matter the most to society. Unless, you are a proponent of a "free" digital world that is unencumbered by any constraints of the real world and seeks to exploit loopholes simply because "they are there."

In any case, my point is not to settle the matter, but to raise the issues of performances and creation of derivative works in the realm of software agents, both for developers of software agent technology and those who seek to deploy it. And we have this issue of what lingering liability tail connects software agents and their creators.

-- Jack Krupansky