Trump’s Turing Test

In the 1950s, British computing pioneer Alan Turing posed a challenge for machines of the future:  to pass the Turing Test, they would have to mimic human conversation so well that observers would be fooled into believing the computers were indeed human.

That has not been an easy task.  Today’s NY Times has an article on a recently-staged demonstration pitting an Israeli debating champion against a computer.  The program, called the IBM Debater, is the culmination of artificial intelligence research intended to increase machines’ understanding of natural language.  It consists of many systems designed and built separately, each working on a different part of creating a coherent argument.

As an example, the IBM Debater, arguing in favor of government subsidies for space exploration, responds, “Another point that I believe my opponent made is that there are more important things than space exploration to spend money on.  It is very easy to say there are more important things to spend money on, and I dispute this.  No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list.”  The Debater goes on to say that space exploration “is more important than good roads or improved schools or better health care.”

Okay, IBM Debater, you win!  Not really:  your multiple systems have interpreted your opponent’s statements, generated a counter-statement and tied that (somewhat) to a larger context.  But simply disputing your opponent’s opinion doesn’t make it wrong, and your own argument fails to convince:  why is space exploration more important than roads, schools or health care?  There is no logic involved in just saying so.  Equally important, the IBM Debater, being a machine after all, is unable to understand or connect with the core values held by its audience.  It’s not believably human.

The failure to address an issue logically, and with consideration for human values, reminds me of just about every utterance coming out of the White House and its representatives.  Nothing said by Sarah Huckabee Sanders ever seems to fully answer questions from the Press Corps; she constantly deflects these questions by blaming the Democrats (just like her boss), or giving misleading answers (ditto), or responding in the following manner (not an actual quote, but the essence of her style):

Q:  How can the President claim there are “fine people” in a KKK march, and when a peaceful demonstrator is murdered by a white supremacist, state there is “blame on both sides?”

A:  The President can’t afford to get bogged down in the fine details of any one incident.  Instead, he is focused on his goal of rebuilding America, a great nation with tolerance and justice for all.”

Yes, but (the first two words in my mind following any White House statement)…

Of course our Chaos President is pulling her strings; deflecting comes from the very top, and lying is his modus operandi.  On the hot topic of immigration and Jeff Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy resulting in the separation of families at the southern border, Trump has repeatedly shifted responsibility to the minority Democrats, when it was his Attorney General who initiated the practice, and Trump himself could immediately end the policy with his saw-tooth signature.  But instead of that, he points to Germany’s “skyrocketing” crime rate– due, he says, to a flood of immigrants– when immigration there has actually slowed considerably, and crime in Germany has decreased to its lowest level in 25 years.  What do truth and responsibility matter, when your actions have already triggered moral outrage on all sides?

Taking screaming kids out of the arms of their desperate parents is horrifying to anyone with compassion.  The practice is compared to child abuse and torture, and has been called cruel, evil and inhumane by all sectors of American society.  Immigration is a highly complex issue with a long history, and yet the stone-faced Stephen Miller sweeps away all complexity and context with his Orwellian statement:  “There is no straying from that mission.”  Typically, he repaints the gray as polarizing black-and-white, pointing out that 90% of Americans are in favor of protecting the border.

Yes, but… how does that specifically justify tearing families apart?  Kirstjen Nielsen, head of Homeland Security, first tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border.  Period.”  Then, as coached by her boss, she blamed this nonexistent policy on the Democrats.  Then, finally admitting that families are being separated, she claimed the children are well cared for:  they have meals, education, medical care, TV.  High standards indeed, but Kirstjen:  traumatized children crying for their parents while waiting in cages built of chain-link fencing are, by definition, not well cared for.  When faced with photos of these cages and ProPublica’s audio recording of children wailing, then asked by a journalist whether she believes the effect of this policy is moral, ethical and American, she answered, “What I believe is we should exercise our democratic rights as Americans and fix the problem.  It’s a problem and let’s fix it.  Yes.”

Yes, but…but…but…

According to tech industry reports, current AI technology allows machines to participate in meaningful debate only about 40% of the time, but the numbers are gradually improving.  I would hold that 40% success rate in stark contrast with the bilge this White House puts out every single day.  If one hopes for “human” (not only in conversation, but also in policy and action), the inhumane, illogical, dishonest and incoherent people of the Trump Administration will never fool us into believing they are human– they have no hope of passing the Turing Test.


Gimme A Vowel II

This morning, for the second time, I woke up thinking of sentences missing the first vowel, which rhymes with Eh.  The first time I did this (see my 5/19/17 post on this blog), you remember, President Trump left on his worldwide religious tour, meeting with the Pope in Rome, etc.  This time he returns surrounded by rumors of the Nobel Prize.

It must be Trump’s trips (or trip-ups) which inspire me to deconstruct my writing, in the futile hope of selectively removing noxious elements.  From his journeys, he brings us more worries over money, old friends, old enemies, his/her/their sincerity vs hostility, thus worsening doubts re our security, or even our very lives.  He proudly crows and struts while synthesizing his own version of the truth, selling it like True News.

So there’s no more risk of some olive-green missile hitting New York City or DC, exploding with the power of hundreds of hydrogen bombs?  Did he truly utter, “Sleep well tonight?”  To die, to sleep no more… there’s the rub, eh, shuffling off this life-ending coil of ours?  Trump thinks he won over this new friend, this little rocket person:  to our not-so-innocent president, the vicious and cruel Kim Jong-Un is “funny,” loves his country (though not ours), supports the downtrodden, is beloved by his underfed people (he does resemble someone’s juicy dumpling).  But don’t forget, mister President, you might choose to lie, but your new friend Kim is sly.  Me, I prefer Seoul to the soulless.

Rude insults tweeted to our wonderful neighbors to the north?  Stubbornly refusing to sign the G7 document?  Simmering resentment from the otherwise serene Ms. Merkel, or her British friend Therese (nom de mon plume)?  In commerce, we lower punitive levies on steel/’luminum imports (supposedly to better the region’s security?), followed by the other sides’ vengeful counter-levies, before we pile on even more ruinous obstructions to sensible, profit-yielding business.  Of course the ensuing bitterness, the multi-directed finger pointing, is toxic to old friendships.

On our own shores:  school gun violence without some response from Congress?  The IG’s report on the FBI/ H. Clinton, now spun into obvious lies by the GOP, just to enfeeble Robert Mueller?  The grinning Betsy DeVos, just for being who she is?  Steve Pruitt’s endless petty grifting?  Bill Clinton’s defensive #MeToo moment?  Denying medicines to the uninsured with pre-existing conditions?  Young children torn, sobbing, from their mothers just within our pristine borders?  Jeff Sessions tells us the Bible instructs on this issue:  the very book supposedly forbidding dessert for two grooms-to-be!  Come on, hurry up, mid-term elections (don’t forget to vote)!

Pretty close to the words of the funniest of four Brothers, Groucho:

Gentlemen, your policy is quite impossible to me; whichever it is, I oppose it!  I’ve been yelling since you first proposed it; I oppose it!

The Don’ld, schOOls,  rOcket men, bOmbs, COngress, #MeTOO, cOnflicts with friends, Oh-Oh!

Next time I might just expunge every word which shelters the evil letter O.

Keep an Eye Out

In crime-ridden Newark, New Jersey, as in most American cities, police have mounted numerous surveillance cameras in an effort to combat street violence and terrorism.  But now they have gone one step further by providing real-time feeds from these closed-circuit TV cameras for public consumption.  The idea is that viewers at home will watch the streets along with the police, and call to report anything they feel is suspicious.  Given current manpower shortages in police departments, that strategy seems fairly reasonable, at face value.

But are private citizens meant to be vigilant, or vigilantes?  What immediately comes to my mind is the recent story of a Yale graduate student, a white woman, calling the campus police to report a “suspicious black woman” sleeping in a common area of her dorm– a woman who turned out to be a fellow grad student taking a nap while studying.  Guilty of sleeping while black, she had to undergo interrogation by skeptical campus cops and provide proof that she belonged in the dorm.  Prejudice will certainly play an ugly role in the reports soon to flood Newark PD phone lines in the name of public safety.

Naturally, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey takes a dim view of these developments.  The NY Times quoted executive director Amol Sinha:  “It’s not just Big Brother.  There’s an infinite number of siblings here.”

It’s  widely known that the Chinese government, in order to enhance surveillance of its own people, has invested heavily in artificial intelligence– including sophisticated facial recognition programs, close monitoring of anti-government sentiment, and assigning security risk scores to every citizen.  Their watchfulness is typical of authoritarian governments, which are ever fearful of being overthrown.  In my second novel, Fourth World Nation, there is one world government, the Pan-World Electorate, with its capital in Beijing.   There, of course, the surveillance is intense, but even in the Martian colony of Highland City, the PWE keeps its ubiquitous Eyes on every city street.  Here’s an excerpt:

“At that same moment, no more than a dozen blocks away, the priest called Jun was walking southward as casually as he could, away from the MWI building.  He had guessed correctly; re-entering Highland City had been fairly easy during the Double Lunar Eclipse Festival. Admittedly it was superstitious, but he felt that the double eclipse would also bring him luck.  Now the second half of his mission—thrown off track by the premature explosion of the device he had planted at City Hall—was complete. The second bomb was in place, with a thirty-hour delay this time, and he would be halfway to Utopia South by the time it went off.  Jun flipped his hood back, turned east on St39, and tried to blend into the festive holiday crowd. Purely by chance, however, an Eye at the next corner turned in his direction. Within three seconds, it had matched his face to that of a suspected terrorist from the City Hall bombing, and sounded an alarm at the Department of Compliance.”

If the ACLU frowns at the invasion of privacy on city streets and other public areas, they would surely howl at the same process taking place in private spaces.  This passage is from the original novel, Fourth World, in which Benn and Lora arrive in New Haven, Connecticut for medical school:

“Now returning to the Security Office from Edward S. Harkness medical dormitory, Halsey made another mental note:  there was something special about the latest arrivals on campus. For one thing, they came from Mars. Eunigen was paying them extra attention, so he’d better do likewise:  what with the hyper-encrypted memos coming from New York two months ago, the unannounced inspection of the campus by Eunigen agents last week, and today this pushy fellow Rion Salkend, fussing and hovering over his three interns like a freak on JAMpot, Halsey resolved to scrub the Eyes a little more closely for the next few weeks.

In addition to the guard, there was an Eye at the medical dorm entrance, two in every hallway, and, unbeknownst to the occupants, one concealed in each apartment, in a location which allowed privacy only in the bathroom (the designers had reluctantly agreed to that one concession).  Halsey had no qualms about the ethics of spying on interns; it was established practice. He passed quickly through his untidy office within the archway at Phelps Gate, and into the circular View Room- it was so much more stimulating in there, compared to filling out endless forms at his desk.”

Don’t forget, the Fourth World trilogy is science fiction!  But I wonder, what will Newark, New Jersey be like, in the year 2196?


A Pirate in the Kitchen

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in France came as a shock this morning.  And yet, somehow, it wasn’t beyond belief– he lived so intensely, so close to the edge, that it seemed almost a matter of time before some event in his life, even a minor one, would tip the scales.  Honestly, I’m glad not to be like that, but his intensity and edginess did serve as an inspiration to me in what I chose to write.

In the late 1990s, I was a mid-career physician with my eye on writing science fiction in retirement.  The books I was reading then were by authors such as Georges Perec, John Irving, William Gass, Jim Harrison and Jonathan Safran Foer.  One day, because of my love of cooking, I picked up Kitchen Confidential out of curiosity, and was immediately struck by Bourdain’s lurid stories of drug abuse, dropping out of college, alcohol addiction, brutal relationships, and the corrupt realities of the restaurant business (all the more vivid now, in the broad wake of Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Charlie Hallowell and the #MeToo movement).  I learned about the mob’s ties to NYC fish delivery; cringed at the image of a huge pirate-like sous-chef who calmly lifted searing-hot pans out of the broiler with his bare hands; and I learned the horrible truth about what goes into those Sunday brunch buffets.  Kitchen Confidential, much more than the cookbook I was hoping for, changed everything– for me in my world view, patronage of Sunday brunches, and ultimately my fiction writing; and for Bourdain, when its success launched him into the public eye.  CNN signed him to the popular television series Parts Unknown, now cut short in its 12th season.

When interviewed by the Associated Press about Parts Unknown, he said:  “If you think about who the audience is and what their expectations might be, I think that’s the road to badness and mediocrity.  You go out there and show the best story you can as best you can.  If it’s interesting to you, hopefully it’s interesting to others.  If you don’t make television like that, it’s pandering.”

That is exactly the argument that ran through my mind almost a decade later, when writing Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  Reading it over, I noted the density of medical technology (for example, genetic engineering with multi-species recombinant DNA) and discussions of related ethical questions (debated in 2018, but settled by law in 2196).  In that book, I even invented a space engine– necessitating a new, fictitious subatomic particle– in order to allow Benn and Lora to fly from Mars to Earth in only four weeks!  Was I going too far, risking the alienation of my readers?  To me, that would be better than waving a hand and simply issuing the order, “Warp nine– engage!”  Wasn’t it preferable to stay true to my own vision of the novels– to be a pirate in my own kitchen?

But who was the audience?  Who were my readers, and what might their expectations be?  If I edited the novel to suit some hypothetical, “average” reader, Anthony Bourdain would call it pandering and a road to mediocrity.  And indeed it would be.  With the conviction that this was my one, best shot at writing, I decided that if the content was interesting to me, then hopefully it would be interesting to others as well.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to two sixth-grade classes about the Fourth World series and writing (see my blog post Kids These Days!).  I advised the potential writers among them to read as much as they could, in order to absorb some of the vocabulary and craft of writing.  Also, they should write about what they know– in my case, medicine, science, colonialism, geopolitics, food and wine.  What I omitted was the importance of being true to themselves, to write what came from within, and not for the sake of external acceptance and positive reviews.

(I know, I know:  marketing!  For all those professional writers in the blogosphere who are now groaning at my remarks, I apologize and readily acknowledge that it’s easier to ignore ratings when you’ve already had a career in medicine).

Should I, or shouldn’t I, have taken an axe to potentially challenging material?  You be the judge.  Here’s the passage from Fourth World with which I wrestled long and hard, before deciding to leave it in, completely intact:

After hanging around the engine room aimlessly for a couple of days, Benn finally asked a sympathetic engineer for a tour.

“All right, Benn, I’ll give you a simplified version.  To start with, let’s consider these subatomic particles as such, although we analyze them as waves.  Flowsorb takes a variety of hyped-up particles, by-products harvested from the fusion reactor (efficient, right?) and fires these particles from the central initiator, where they first enter the cyclic counter-current mechanism. Meanwhile, at the terminal emitter, each compatible, or what we call candidate, particle degrades to a capacitron:  you remember that’s a cousin of the anti-proton, capable of absorbing energy like a sponge, storing that energy until a specific threshold is exceeded, then discharging it. Following me so far?”

Benn nodded uncertainly.

“See, the Flowsorb mechanism exploits the power of the Almighty Exponential,” said the engineer, bowing his head only half in jest.  “Changes in particle direction are forced by plasma nano-platforms, which are folded by powerful magnetic fields. These folds are embedded in thousands of larger platforms which fold into larger convolutions, and they, in turn, fold upon themselves– and so it goes, over and over.

“The repeated folding forces streams of energized particles to pass streams of capacitrons traveling in the opposite direction, millions of times over, each time transferring a portion of energy back toward the center.  Finally, a new cycle begins– but with their energy multiplied in each cycle, these exponentially-accelerated particles asymptotically approach the speed of light. You see?”

The engineer, now multiplying his own energy level, waved his hands in the air.  “Particle velocities literally explode by orders of magnitude! Then we eject these particles into space, and the rest relies on Newton’s Third Law:  you know, action and equal-slash-opposite reaction. Major thrust is what I’m talking about!  And that enables us to reach Earth in only four weeks, a journey that used to take more than seven months!”