Thursday, November 27, 2014

Why Artificial Intelligence IS Real Intelligence

One of the most common arguments I've seen in the face of AI research is that computers aren't REALLY intelligent. They merely emulate intelligence, something that is inherent to biological life, or , in some views, only humans. In his article "Artificial Intelligence, Really, Is Pseudo-Intelligence," Alva NoĆ« argues that computers lack 'drive': they can't attach meaning to things, and therefore they can't have wants like biological beings do.

Lets say, right now, I want a chocolate bar. "Want" is a pretty complex term. Does it refer to the lack of calories, calcium, sugar, magnesium, or even serotonin that my body's sensors detect in my bloodstream? Does it refer to the physical symptoms that manifest in my stomach and mouth that my brain recognizes, or the memory of how a chocolate bar negated these symptoms a week ago? Does it refer to my memories of having a chocolate bar while at the computer that have taught me chocolate is the "right" choice in this situation, just one of many learned behaviors? Does it refer to an emotional component, a combination of learned behavior and brain chemical levels that tell me that chocolate makes me 'happy'?

"Want" encompasses all of these things. It's complex, and it's more complex than anything AI can do right now as a whole. But when you break it down this way, what up there can we do that computers can't? We can create programs that take information from sensors. We can create programs that can access memories and find patterns, and determine a course of action based on that pattern. That's all intelligence is. The human mind, our meanings and desires, are only complex derivatives of very basic mechanical things, in the same way that the leaves on a vine create a beautiful spiraling pattern simply as a way of maximizing the sun coverage each leaf gets. Biological machines aren't inherently different from artificial machines. They've just had a head start. 

Another argument he uses is that of understanding. Computers can't understand, they can only perform the actions they are told to. One example is that of the Translator's Room. A human is locked in a room with nothing but a pen, and dictionaries that translate one foreign language into another. The human knows neither of these languages. However, every day, they receive papers with writing in one of the languages. Using the books, they are able to perfectly translate the writing into the other language before passing the paper back out of the room. They can complete this task despite not 'understanding' either language. 

This argument doesn't negate the possibility of artificial intelligence. It shows that a system can only do so much with limited information. If the books in the Translator's Room scenario had a picture for each word they translated, the human would be able to understand another component to the sentences they wrote. What if they were familiar pictures? Just like Helen Keller, with her hand underneath the spigot, the human could recognize water in any language if they just had another reference point. Another piece of information. Could that be considered understanding? A computer can store associations and memories just as a human mind can, and the more data a computer has access to, the more associations can be made. Isn't that all that understanding is? A summary of our experiences and the patterns we've derived from them? 

The Jeopardy-Playing robot, Watson, which the article cites as an example of a lack of understanding THRIVES on those summaries. It doesn't have any visual or physical references, which make up most of our human understanding. But it knows a river is a flowing body of water. It knows water is a compound in a liquid state that is common on Earth, and necessary for human life. It knows flowing is a type of movement only fluids, like liquid, can achieve. Even without visual reference, how is this not understanding? Watson can induct. It can deduct. And it can use those abilities to answer questions.

I'd argue that's what intelligence is. Our ability to derive patterns from information and act using those patterns. That ability is just as real in computers as in any biological creature. It's just our job to prepare computers to use it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Super Secret Special Project: Makerspace!: A Long Introduction.

I've finally caught up with my teasers! I've been pretty busy with school, scouts, other projects, and, yes, my Gold Award project, where I'm hoping to build a Makerspace at my old middle school!

Note: For the uninitiated (credit xkcd)...

A Makerspace, Hackerspace, FabLab, Techshop, etc... is a space devoted to providing materials, instruction, and community to anyone interested in creating. It goes hand in hand with movements like OpenSource, STEAM education, and free information. A Makerspace wants everyone to be able to make, and to find other people who make.

To give a little background - my middle school librarian was an awesome teacher, interested in sharing information, technology, and connection through the library. She started the technology club my first year at our school, where teachers could come and talk about the technology they wanted to use in the classroom (e.g. Google Earth Tours, iPod touches, online video-editing software, etc) and it was up to us to A) figure out how to use the technology, and B) teach the teachers once we figured it out. The club was only the beginning. By the end of the year, 13 of us were enrolled in the Independent Study Tech Team class, taught in the library, by the librarian, for an entire class period each day. The teacher brought some brilliant ideas to the class: 20% time, bringing in projects from other classes to try out the technology, etc. It was basically a maker class! The only thing we lacked was materials.

In the library, we had three things we could work on: Software on the computers (the basics of Windows 7 plus a few class specific things, like Alice), thirty-something iPod touches we rented out to classes, and books. This was a great starting point, but I kept having to bring in my own materials for 20% time to feed my interest in robotics and programming. The teacher introduced me to the idea of a Makerspace my eighth grade year, and the more research I did the more I liked it. The materials I've collected are important to the kinds of projects I get to do - I hate the idea that another kid somewhere won't get to learn about robotics because they don't have access to a mindstorms, or an arduino to learn on.

Ninth grade taught me how useful a Makerspace could be. If you've even taken just a quick look at this blog, you can see I took Tech Theatre, and made full use of the workshop we had available. That workshop is my favorite place in the entire school, because it has everything you need to bring a design to life. Tech Theatre may not be a class devoted to engineering, but I feel that, because of the workshop, and because of the self driven nature of the class and the projects, it does a better job of teaching problem solving, design, and engineering skills than the note-and-test heavy engineering-specific class I took.

I decided to try and find a nearby Makerspace - it turns out the nearest is an hour's round trip from my house. I got a tour to see how the space functioned. It was REALLY cool, but I noticed that it was definitely geared more toward the adult, experienced engineer in price range, classes and tools available, and supervision. That wasn't quite what I was looking for, so I contacted my old librarian to ask her thoughts on creating a Makerspace in Plano... and a few weeks later, she's my Gold Award Project Advisor,  I've sent a powerpoint proposal to the principal of the school, and I'm prepping one to send to my local public libraries! (See the powerpoint here, if you're interested)

What's the plan? Well, the main issue is cost. I spent a long time looking up the costs of materials I'd like to include, and, to say the least, cost was high. I'm planning on organizing a tool drive to try and get some of the cheaper items, like paintbrushes and screwdrivers, old toys to take apart, Ewaste, and the like. Some of the rest will be funded by club member fees, but for a lot of it I'm looking at funding online through, or something similar.

Another constraint is space. The area we're looking at converting is currently storage for books that get lent out in English classes for reading assignments. We get a grand total of one bookshelf for storage, so we'll have to use it wisely. This is a real model of the space I made in Sketchup. I'm betting the Technology club will be happy to have it. Right now, I'm still waiting on the final green light from the principal, which will hopefully come in the next couple of weeks. Then I can turn in my paperwork, and get the ball rolling! Expect to see more about this soon, and all the little mini-projects it entails.

(NOTE: I'm going to publish this as is, but it's a little outdated now. I've since had my project fully approved, and the first meeting with the students will be next week! I even had the chance to talk about my project at the Girl Scout Leadership Institute at this year's national convention. I'm super excited to get started. If any of you have ideas for fundraising, or know of good projects or resources for a middle school Makerspace, please comment below! I'd love to hear what you think.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Trying out Web Design

So, as I posted here earlier, I'm planning on revamping this blog's appearance. This isn't a random burst of inspiration: this year, for my Technical Theatre class, we're required to create a digital portfolio. That's practically what I've been using the blog for so far, so, although I'm creating a separate website for the portfolio specifically, I'd like the two to have a unifying theme. Also, I may be using this blog to document my Gold Award project (which was approved yesterday! Expect the post to FINALLY make it up later this week.) I want it to look more professional, and, in general, more "me." So, here are the steps I've taken so far to try a whole new kind of coding.

Step One:  Learn how to code.

I'm going to be painfully honest here: prior to this project, I had never used HTML before. Never. Not once in my life. Not even a little. It's one of those things that would have been useful that I just never did. Thankfully, it's 2014 and the internet flourishes. I tried out a couple of different online tutorials, and by far the best one was the Codecademy: Make a Website tutorial, covering HTML and CSS. It's straightforward, it's fast (I did an hour here and there over a week and finished easily), and it's what I needed to know.

Even later, when I actually started coding, I could check the Codeacademy HTML and CSS glossaries, which made for handy cheat sheets, and had everything covered in the course, and more.

A word of warning though: The website recommends the javascript-based "Build an Interactive Website" tutorial immediately after the one I took. For that tutorial, you really do need to have a decent understanding of Javascript before you take the plunge. I left it pretty thoroughly confused after the first few problems.  I started the Javascript tutorial a few days ago, and it's pretty basic stuff, but I'm hoping when I finish I can take another stab at it.

Step Two: Get a good editor to work in.

For most of my day-to-day programming, I use Textmate. But I got a good recommendation from a friend as far as a good Wed-Design specific text editor: Brackets.
And I have to agree: Brackets is the best.

There are two things that make Brackets really useful:
One, it keeps all your files organized in the sidebar, where they're easily accessible without making you go dig through folders and directories. All of them. Pictures, HTML, CSS, add-on libraries. I'm not very organized on my own, so this was a LIFE CHANGING revelation, and the second most useful thing about the program.

Two, it comes with a way of previewing your website live as you make changes. It comes with the download, and you need Google Chrome to use it. But there was nothing better than being able to tap away on my keyboard and see the elements of the website come to life in front of me. It's not always perfect. I usually had to reload the page on chrome after any big changes. But it was helpful both in designing the page and understanding the code I was designing with.

Step Three: Start Designing!

I'm working specifically on the Portfolio website right now. I have a plan drawn out (which I'll upload once I redraw on something that isn't my English HW). Once I figured out how everything fit together , it was really fun to manipulate. I used Bootstrap to make the designing a little easier, which was super handy, and there's a lot of support out there for it. This was what I had at the end of the day:

The idea is to have each project organized on the timeline from most to least recent. Each one will be contained in a box with it's title, a short description, a picture, and a link to a page with more information. What's here isn't quite right either - I want the red timeline thinner, but that's a challenge for another day.

I think I want to try and use Rails to make adding and updating projects easier. I tried the Rails for Zombies tutorial a few months ago, but I never felt really comfortable with the material. I guess it's time to retry, maybe with the Codecademy tutorial as well? I figure that will be useful for a blog design too! At least I don't need anything solid to turn in until April.

So that's my Thanksgiving break plan. I'll also be working on my Makerspace plans (Look for a post! I promise!), school work (bleck), and an interesting proposal I got from my Tech Director about using robots to move set pieces for this year's musical (More on that later, I hope).  Not much of a break, but I'm just happy to have a few days I don't have to get up at 7 am if I don't want to. How about you guys? What are your plans?

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Just a quick heads up that I'm doing a complete overhaul on this blog's appearance, title, and URL. I'm planning on using it as a part of my Gold Award project (I've had a post drafted for MONTHS about it now, which, hopefully, I'll post later this week. But school has really knocked the wind out of me. Basically: I'm building Makerspaces at schools in my area.)
Anyway, changing title, changing url, etc. Eventually I want to move it to it's own URL, but that probably won't happen until at earliest Thanksgiving. So, apologies for any inconvenience! This should get sorted out pretty soon.