31 March 2007

Shouldn’t we demand more?

The doubt raised on the accuracy of information in Wikipedia’s content pages (see my previous post) is an interesting case against user-generated content in our freedom-loving and democratic world.

Should anyone and everyone be allowed to generate content on a website which describes itself as an online encyclopedia? I think not. After all, people consult encyclopedias for accuracy of information and balanced (impartial) points of view on specific topics.

For a moment, let us forget about Wikipedia, although its free online content, available in 250 languages, is immensely useful to millions of users across the world. Let us consider the principle on which an encyclopedia is created: the principle of knowledge, and the quality of it.

What if contributors to a printed encyclopedia, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, played mischief with this knowledge, misrepresenting it, adding a bias to suit their needs, or hiding the truth to further their agenda? Where would that leave us?

I agree that Wikipedia is a collaborative effort and, by the strength of the system, user/citizen editors would soon catch the misinformation and the misuse and correct them. They would catch the miscreants and sanction them. But, by then, millions of users across the world may already be misled.

On the same principles of democracy and freedom that are hallmarks of user-managed and/or collaborative websites like Wikipedia, shouldn’t we, as users, demand more?

29 March 2007

Wikipedia's weakness

Every rumour has some truth in it. Which means every rumour also carries an element of doubt. You should not trust everything you hear in a rumour. And so, I must confess that the content of my previous post narrating the genesis of ‘Frankenstein’, the story by Mary Shelley, may not have been entirely factually correct.

You see, in spite of having done my homework on Wikipedia (it’s there in my citation), I may still be wrong. That’s because there’s a rumour going around that Wikipedia itself may be wrong. How so? Well, it seems Wikipedia is entirely manned by volunteers, many of whom may not possess in-depth knowledge on the subject they write about or edit for the benefit of millions of users like me.

In a recent brandchannel.com article analysing Wikipedia’s weakness, brand identity consultant Alycia de Mesa puts it plainly: “What many general users perceive as a fact-based encyclopedic resource for any given topic typed into the search window is actually a series of articles that may or may not be factually accurate and, in some cases, are incomplete or just flat-out wrong.”

In her brandchannel.com article, titled ‘Wikipedia: In brand we trust?’, Ms de Mesa quotes Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC saying, “Now we have something as important as an online encyclopedia for tens of millions of people, and anyone can go on and make an edit that might go unchecked for weeks or months or maybe never.”

Or worse, as Ms de Mesa clarifies, “…changes made to articles can be erased within minutes of posting by a volunteer administrator for reasons that may or may not be obvious or even warranted.” Adding later, “Because even the ‘administrators’ designated to oversee certain types of articles are all volunteers and are not necessarily credentialed in any way above and beyond the average user.”

For someone like me, who constantly uses Wikipedia for fact-finding and confirmation of truth in many areas, this is indeed worrisome news.

28 March 2007

Gothic tales

Rumour has it that, in 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 19, along with her soon-to-be husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had travelled to Switzerland to visit Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva.

There, Lord Byron, after having read an anthology of German ghost stories called ‘Fantasmagoriana’, had challenged the Shelleys, as well as his personal physician, John William Polidori, to a contest of writing the scariest tale possible.

Apparently, Percy Bysshe Shelley had conceded defeat right away.

On the other hand, Mary Shelley, after a dream of some sort, had written the story of a Dr Victor Frankenstein who had put together various human body parts and brought to life a monstrous ‘creature’, which had ultimately rebelled against the good doctor and created havoc around the countryside by killing people. This story by Mary Shelley, called ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, had been first published in 1818 to become the most famous horror story in the world.

Rumour also has it that, at this meeting, Lord Byron himself had begun writing a story about vampire legends he had heard while travelling to the Balkans. Although he could not complete the story, his physician, John William Polidori, taking off from Lord Byron’s work, had written his own vampire legend, called ‘The Vampyre’, and had it published in 1819.

In so doing, both Mary Shelley and John William Polidori had become two of the early contributors of Gothic fiction.

[Citation: wikipedia]

26 March 2007


In some of my previous posts, I’ve written about how the amount of technology in our lives is a matter of concern and anxiety. How, from emails to artificial life, technology has encroached upon our lives in an alarming manner. However, I believe, this anxiety is really a Western phenomenon and is yet to trouble us in the East.

Although the second test-tube baby in the world was created by an Indian doctor, Dr Subhash Mukhopadhyay, in Calcutta in 1978, the baby named Durga after a Hindu goddess (she is known as Kanupriya Agarwal), Eastern cultures have more or less remained unperturbed by this technophobia of the West.

Of course, I must confess, the technology behind the test-tube baby is a Western creation; and, while this creation and the technology (IVF) were celebrated around the world at that time, there was a cry of alarm as well. In fact, for his feat, Dr Subhash Mukhopadhyay was ostracised by the Indian as well as the West Bengal government, and later committed suicide in his flat in Calcutta.

The Western world’s fascination with, and alarm about, the creation of life artificially is a historical one. Somehow, there has always been a sense of foreboding attached to this idea. As if the idea automatically comes with a foretelling of doom. The most well-known literary documentation of this type of thinking is represented in Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, written just before World War 2, and George Orwell’s ‘1984’, written just after.

But, to my mind, the classic example of this thinking (and documentation) is represented in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ – an early 19th-century English tale of horror, and a Western-world allegory of man’s fascination with creating life artificially… and the foreboding which is built-in in this idea.

Frankenstein’s ‘creature’ (I wonder if Steve Grand chose the name of his computer game ‘Creatures’ from this story) is a composite of human body-parts and is animated by electricity. It’s a momentous event when this creation takes place. But, before the ‘creature’ can be educated about the ways of the world, it runs loose and destroys everything and everyone Frankenstein loves.

It’s a story of the creature taking revenge on its creator. There is the usual celebration of man’s ability to create life artificially, followed by the sense of doom that seems to govern this thought from its earliest days.

Perhaps ‘Frankenstein’ is a cautionary tale, warning man against trying to assume God’s role. Or, perhaps ‘Frankenstein’ is trying to tell us is that, along with the ability to create life, the creator (and his technology) has a responsibility to his creation, as well as to those likely to be affected by it.

Whatever be the moral of the story, Dr Subhash Mukhopadhyay certainly paid the price for it.

25 March 2007


We are fascinated with creation. Not only from the point of view of our origin on this planet or the universe, but also from the process of creating life. The birth of a human child, or any living organism, is simply awe-inspiring. So, it’s no strange wonder that we are also fascinated with the possibility of creating artificial life.

Our efforts in genetic engineering and cloning, although sounding old-fashioned in the context of the cyber world, are still on the fast track. But, so is our effort in creating artificial life of the kind Steve Grand, among others, researches in – and even plays with. (Read my previous post ‘Steve’s grand ambition’.) Steve Grand’s kind of creation is called artificial life, or A-Life.

A-Life deals with creation of new life forms which inhabit synthetic environments in computer programmes. These artificial life forms have their own characteristics, behaviour and intelligence, and they ‘live’ and ‘evolve’ within the synthetic worlds of the computer programmes they inhabit. We can observe and interact with them from our real-life world.

This, of course, is a simplified explanation. The best example of A-Life is Steve Grand’s own computer game ‘Creatures’, which he created somewhere back in the mid-1990s. But, since most of us are unfamiliar with it, perhaps, an easier reference would be the subject of, and the allusion made to, the non-real world in the 1999 film ‘Matrix’ (starring Keanu Reeves) and its sequels.

Similar to the question raised in the film ‘Matrix’, there is a concern – and fear – over the moral and social implications of developing such A-Life technologies. What if these A-Life forms became ‘intelligent’ enough to reproduce themselves and/or take control over the humans who created them? Where would we be then?

24 March 2007

The History and Workings of Robotics

“Can a robot be conscious? Can it be not only intelligent, but aware in the way that we are? So far, no artificially intelligent computer has ever shown such signs of life. However, if robots eventually think like us, detect and express emotions, pursue their own interests (whatever those are programmed to be) and even make copies of themselves, it will be increasingly difficult to draw the line between machines and living things.”

This quote is from The Tech Museum of Innovation’s website on Robotics. Specifically speaking, it’s from the ‘living’ page of ‘The History and Workings of Robotics’ chapter. The webpage (from which this quote is chosen) also covers The Turing Test and Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics – must reads for robot or robotics fans.

An online exhibition, ‘The History and Workings of Robotics’ includes sections titled introduction, working, playing, exploring, moving, sensing, thinking and living… all of which make enjoyable reading, even for those who aren’t attracted by technology or robotics all that much.

You can also visit the Robotics homepage on The Tech Museum of Innovation and learn more about the applications of, and apprehensions about, robots and robotics in our lives.

21 March 2007

Steve's grand ambition

If machines are able to reason and experience emotions like humans, what would be the difference between the two?

Steve Grand, CEO of Cyberlife Research, which is trying to create forms of synthetic life, says,
“People are sometimes fearful that artificial life research will reduce us all to machines and explain away our souls... On the contrary, I believe it will give us a new understanding and a new respect for ourselves, as the most sublime machines in the known universe.” [1]

Come on! Humans as the most sublime machines in the known universe?!! What does this mean? That humans are the ultimate machines? That, out of a desire for a perfect understanding of himself, man is intent on artificially creating the perfect replica of himself in the form of a cyborg or a synthetic man? Is this sheer narcissistic pleasure, or what?

Maybe that explains Western civilisation’s fascination with science fiction over the last 60 years or so (the East is conspicuously blank in this territory). What’s more, some of this thinking may already have fructified into synthetic life forms. For, artificial life (or A-Life) research has a grand ambition. This is what Steve Grand has to say when he is asked about his life ambition (in an interview with www.homecreatures.com):

“To be the first person to create an artificial conscious being and be insulted by it. I’m supposed to say that I want to do this in order to create new kinds of technology that help people. When I’m in business meetings I’m supposed to say that I want to make lots of money for our shareholders and make myself rich. The honest truth, though, is that I want to understand what makes life tick. Life is such an odd concept, and minds are such strange things – I’ve got one of each, and I don’t understand them at all! What more can any of us want than to understand ourselves and each other? My feeling is that the best way to understand life is to create it. Building things is a great way to ensure that you’ve got your ideas straight. Fancy words can hide sloppy reasoning, but a computer will never let you get away with anything.”

To me, the thought ‘should technology be available, machines would become human’ is as fascinating as it is scary. Would these new machines be self-aware like human beings? Would they have morals? Would they be a threat to human life? Would the world be a better place to live in if humans and machines were equal? Would there be any difference between the two when we are all one?

[1 Citation: Steve Grand quote from ‘The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Chapter 2: Machine', by Kathleen Fitzpatrick]

20 March 2007

Machines can't think like humans

No matter how much you rave on about technology, machines still can’t think like human beings.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love machines and technology too. From their ability to book flight tickets in an instant to saving friends and family from possible heart attacks to developing safer cars to travel in to providing better news and entertainment… it’s impossible to ignore the benefits of machines and technology in our lives. Some say, machines can be programmed to solve just about anything we have difficulty with.

Well, not yet. When it comes to tasks which come naturally to human beings, like making beds or telling bedtime stories to put children to sleep, machines fall regrettably short. One of the reasons for this may be because machines are not quite sure of themselves when they encounter something unexpected. If the solution is not found within the system – i.e. it is not programmed into it – machines can get stuck (stop functioning or go into a loop) or behave erratically.

In contrast, when humans get stuck with problems, they seek out and find possible alternative approaches, methods and solutions… some of which may involve using another machine or technology or tactic. This versatility, or resourcefulness, of human beings is something machines have not been able to copy. At least, not yet. This is because the resourcefulness of the human mind is not entirely a matter of reason, but a combination of reason and emotion.

16 March 2007

Technology is sexy

Do we have an obsession with technology?

From faster cars and computers to mobilephones with more features to Internet connectivity at lightning speeds to washing machines with fuzzy logic to HDTV, space exploration, nuclear weapons, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence… man’s endeavour to create a technologically-superior life is an endless enterprise.

What for? Why do we engineer fancier and faster machines? What motivates us to design a life of speed? Why has technology become an all-powerful culture in our lives?

While reviewing Hans van de Braak’s seminal work, ‘The Prometheus Complex: Man’s Obsession with Superior Technology’, in a 1997 issue of Technology and Culture journal, David Rothenberg offers a point of view: “We don’t just do it to get ahead in the material world, we are obsessed, we are seduced, and we use technology to impress and seduce ourselves. Technology is sexy. We always want more.”

Well, what do you think?

13 March 2007

A new love affair

For most of us, the relationship between man and machine is not yet a direct wiring in syndrome. Although some of us go to sleep with our mobilephones and our iPods next to our pillows, we do keep a distance from most other electronic devices such as TV sets, computers and microwave ovens. But, you can’t deny the fact that slowly we are becoming willing functionaries of these machines (if they may be called by that old-fashioned term). In fact, for some of us, it’s a new love affair.

I’m not sure if we can describe the man-machine relationship as a ‘physical’ one, but there is a relationship which tends to draw in the man to the machine. When I observe the excitement – and glee – with which I use my computer to do my work, check my emails, surf the Internet, blog, network on orkut, etc., or use my mobilephone to remain connected locally, even internationally, I’m amazed at the dependence my life has on these machines. I confess, the time I spend with these machines is substantial.

It’s true I have no literal interface (i.e. physical wiring in) with these machines, but the dependence – both functional (work-related) and emotional – is tremendous. When these systems are ‘down’, I go crazy, fretting and fuming and cursing everyone likely to be responsible for the downtime. If the downtime persists, or as it is in love, if the machines fail to stick to their commitments, I go through phases of anger and anxiety and depression. How can my life go on without these machines!

Of course, life does go on… with or without machines. When I come to my senses, I chuckle over my anger and anxiety and depression. Surely, machines cannot rule my life. Losing touch with machines cannot be the end of my world.

[Just in case, I better upload this post on my blog before the broadband connection breaks down.]

10 March 2007

My connected life

While travelling on work, I need to stay connected with my clients, my business associates and my friends. That’s where technology comes in. My laptop and my mobilephone become essential appendages to my body. Not only do I use these technological devices for their respective tasks, but, when I need to send or receive emails, or surf the Internet, I connect them through a wired interface and simply (to use an old-fashioned term) dial up to the world.

Mind you, at home, I’m no different. While watching TV or listening to music, I’m rather free and submissive with the remote control. Still, I’m a bit of an old fogie. So far, I’ve stayed away from iPods and hands-free attachments to my mobilephone or my music system. That’s because I’m against anything that requires me to plug in wires and things into my body. They make me uncomfortable. God help me if I ever need a pacemaker.

When I think about the omnipresence of technological devices in my life and how some of them have become almost-natural appendages to my body, I find the phenomenon quite incredible. These devices of technology have virtually become extensions of myself. I can’t live without them. This makes me wonder: If these devices of technology have become extensions of myself, have I become more of a machine and alienated myself from my inner being?

Wonder what the Romantics would have said about my connected life.

06 March 2007

The Romantic Movement

The Romantic Movement has been described as an artistic and intellectual response to the strict discipline and philosophy of the Enlightenment period. Its character, typically, has been expressed in feelings, sentimentality and unrequited love; not reason, technology, fashion or architecture.

This made me wonder if there would ever have been a Romantic Movement without the Industrial Revolution and all the evils that came with it. I use the word evil not with a satanic connotation, but more loosely to indicate the negative side-effects of progress and prosperity, much of which we are enjoying today.

The Industrial Revolution stood for inventions, technology, industry-building, trade, travel and the growth of cities. It brought to us goods – and even services, like banking – which made life better for us, easier for us, safer for us. Life advanced; a new civilisation was built. Yet, this advance isolated us from nature and the natural world. It took us away from the purity and simplicity of a good and happy life.

Perhaps we, or some of us, felt threatened by this change in our lives – threatened by this loss of connection or attachment with nature. And, perhaps, this loss was grief enough for us to turn to nature and its expression in poetry, literature, music and art. Perhaps, it was this collective grief which really created the Romantic Movement – and not mere feelings, sentimentality and unrequited love which is what is typically attributed to it.

Perhaps, the Romantic Movement was just a response to those values which were lacking in our lives – and in our society – at that period of time. And, perhaps, it was the Romantic Movement which made life more enduring for us.

04 March 2007

Falling in love, Minsky-style

“We are equally apt to deceive ourselves, not only in our personal lives but also when dealing with abstract ideas. There, too, we often close our eyes to conflicts and clashes between our beliefs.”
[Marvin Minsky, mathematician and computer scientist, from Chapter 1: ‘Falling in Love’ in his book, ‘The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind’ as quoted on Edge 203.]

We’ve all gone through it, for better or worse, and we all want to know about it. But seldom do we have the time to research or write a treatise on love – or, more accurately, on falling in love – like Marvin Minsky does.

In ‘Falling In Love’, Marvin Minsky very simply asks, what is love, and how does it work? However, in supplying the answer(s), he takes us through a long journey that covers discussions on Infatuation, The Sea of Mental Mysteries, Moods and Emotions, Infant Emotions, Seeing a Mind as a Cloud of Resources, Adult Emotions, Emotion Cascades, and Theories of Feelings, Meanings and Machines… with quotes and diagrams to boot.

Not quite what Shakespeare wrote about, right? But surely, you didn’t expect any explanation on love to be easy? At least, not from someone like Marvin Minsky who compares man to machines as easily as we compare apples and oranges over the breakfast table.

You’d probably like to know what ‘Falling In Love’ is all about yourself. So, without much ado, here’s the Edge 203 link.
[You’ll need to scroll halfway down the page for the article.]