A.I., machine-learning and the 9 billion names of God

I’m about to write on topics I know very little about.

A few weeks ago I went to go see Ex Machina at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon. I am a sucker for most things sci-fi, and a sci-fi thriller revolving around artificial intelligence and sexy lady robots seemed like pretty much a home run for my Saturday night.

And it was. In the movie the creator of the artificial intelligence (Played by Oscar Isaac) talks about solving the problem of mimicking and interpreting human facial expressions. The solution was the use a vast, legally dubious treasure trove of data from cell phones to sort of brute-force the solution.

This is where we start to delve into things I know nothing about: cracking artificial intelligence. Truthfully, I’m not sure what the definition of artificial intelligence even is, or if I’d know if I saw it. If you could make something indistinguishable from human intelligence then what’s artificial about it?

But the definition of A.I. isn’t what I wanted to write about. What I wanted to write about was how every time I read about the vast quantities of data we’re creating and collecting — really I’d say just creating; the “data” has always been there, floating around like butterflies. We just never had nets to catch them like the ones we do today — I think to a short story I read in high school by Arthur C. Clarke: The Nine Billion Names of God.

In this story some monks decide to use a computer to generate every possible name for God. The thought is when the task is done the universe will come to an end.

It reminds me of our approaches to various types of machine learning, insomuch as I understand them: Develop a scheme for understanding a problem than throw remarkable quantities of information at it. Let lifetimes of data generate something magical from a relatively crude model; like watching a river turn jagged boulders into smooth river stones or something.

These crazy quantities of data are something the internet has enabled. It’s a remarkable point in human civilization.

I guess I don’t really have a point. I mostly wanted to share a link to the Arthur C. Clarke story, as I’ve found a lot of people haven’t heard of it and it seems very relevant.

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    George Mandis