Two cents of (natural) intelligence

Several months ago, my previous attempt to speak here about artificial intelligence, wondering if computers could participate in the invention of language, met a total lack of feedback (it's not too late for second thoughts, dear reader). I found it quite frustrating, hence another attempt to venture on this slippery debate ground.
+Emeka Okoye in the follow-up of the previous post on facets makes strong points. When I wonder how much intelligence we want to delegate to machines, and for which tasks, the answer comes as a clear declaration of intention.
We are not delegating "intelligence" to machines rather we are delegating "tasks" ... We can have a master-slave relationship with machines ... We, humans, must be in control.
I appreciate the cautious quote marks in the above. But can it be that simple? Or just wishful thinking, as +Gideon Rosenblatt is warning us in a post entitled Artificial Intelligence as a Force of Nature. The connected machines ecosystem, distributed agents, neuronal networks and the like, are likely to evolve into systems (call them intelligent or not is a moot point) which might soon escape, or has already escaped if we believe some other experts on this topic, the initial purpose and tasks assigned by their human creators, to explore totally new and unexpected paths. This hypothesis, not completely new, is backened here by a comparison with evolution of life, of which the emergent ambient intelligence would be a natural (in all meanings of the term) follow-up.

But evolution of technologies, from primitive pots, knifes and looms up to our sophisticated information systems, is difficult to compare to the evolution of life and intelligence. The latter is very slow, driven by species selection on time scales of millions of years, spanning thousands of generations. Behind each success we witness, each species we wonder how it perfectly fits its environment, are forgotten zillions of miserable failures which have been eliminated by the pitiless struggle for life. Nothing can support the hypothesis of an original design and intention behind such stories.
It's often said, like in this recent Tech Insider article, that comparing natural and artificial intelligence is like comparing birds to planes. I agree, but this article misses an important argument. Birds can fly, but at no moment did Mother Nature sat down at her engineering desk and decided to design animals able to fly. They just happened to evolve so over millions of years from awkward feathered dinosaurs, jumping and flying better and better and we now have eagles, sterns and falcons. On the contrary, planes were from the beginning designed with the purpose of flying, and in barely half a century they were able to fly higher and quicker than the above natural champions of flight.

To make it short, technology evolves based on purpose and design, life (nature) has neither predefined purpose nor design. Intelligence makes no exception to that. Natural intelligence (ants, dolphins, you and me) is a by-product of evolution, like wings and flight. We were not designed to be intelligent, we just happened to be so as birds happened to fly. But computers were built with a purpose, even if they now behave beyond their original design and purpose, like many other technologies, because the world is complex, open and interconnected.

Let's make a different hypothesis here. Distributed intelligent agents could escape the original purpose and design of their human creators, maybe. But in such a case, they are not likely to emerge as the single super intelligence some hope and others fear. Rather, like the prebiotic soup more than three billions years ago, its spontaneous evolution would probably follow the convoluted and haphazard paths of natural evolution, struggle for survival and the rest. A recipe for success over billions of years, maybe, but not for tomorrow morning.


Rage against the mobile

The conversation around the previous post about facets led me to investigate a bit more about mobile, and what it means for the web of text. This is something I'd never really considered so far, and thanks to +Aaron Bradley for attracting my attention on it. Bear in mind I'm just an old baby-boomer who never adopted mobile devices so far, touchscreens drive me crazy, and I still wonder how people can write anything beyond a two words sentence on such devices etc. To be honest I do have a mobile phone but it is as dumb as can be (see below). It's a nice light, small object, feeling a bit like a pebble in my pocket but I actually barely use it (by today standards), just to quick calls and messages. Most of the time I don't even carry it along with me, let alone check messages, to the despair of my family, friends and former colleagues. But they eventually get used to it.

To make it short, I do not belong to the mobile generation, and my experience of the Web has been from the beginning, is, and is bound to remain a desk activity, even if the desktop has become a laptop along the years. I'm happy with my keyboard and full screen, so why should I change? And when the desk is closed, I'm glad to be offline and unreachable. I wish and hope things can stay that way as long as I'm able to read, think and write.

With such a long disclaimer, what am I untitled to say about mobile? Only quote what others who seem to know better have already written. In this article among others I read about the so-called mobile tipping point, this clear and quite depressing account of the consequences of mobile access on Web content.
The prospect for people who like to read and browse and sample human knowledge, frankly, is of a more precipitous, depressing decline into a black-and-white world without nuance [...] The smaller screens and less nimble navigation on phones lend themselves to consuming directory, video, graphic and podcast content more easily that full sentences. If the text goes much beyond one sentence, it is likely to go unread just because it looks harder to read than the next slice of information on the screen. [...] Visitors who access information via a mobile device don’t stay on sites as long as they do when using a desktop computer. So if you’re counting on people using their smartphones or tablets to take the same deep reading dive into the wonders of your printed or normal Web page messages, you’re probably out of luck.  
Given the frantic efforts of Web content providers to keep audience captive, all is ready for a demagogic vicious circle of simplification. Short sentences, more and more black-and-white so-called facts. If this is where the Web is heading to, count me out. I won't write for mobile more than I use mobile to read and write.

I still have hope, though, looking at this blog analytics. Over 80% of the traffic seems to still come from regular (non mobile) browsers and OS. But I guess many of you visitors have also a mobile (smart) phone you otherwise use. I wonder if and how you manage to balance which device you use for which usage. Are you smart enough to use mobile for apps, and switch to proper desk screens to take the time to read (and write)? I'm curious to know. 


In praise of facets

Follow-up of the previous post, and more on the ways to escape the tyranny of entities in search results. In the quick exchange with Aldo Gangemi in the comments of this post, facets were suggested. I won't argue further with Aldo about facets at BabelNet being types or topics, because he will win at the end, and such a technical argument would lead us astray, far from the main point I wouyld like to make today. You might be uneasy on what facets and particularly faceted search mean, but you have certainly used them many times when searching e-commerce sites, to filter hundreds of laptop models by price, brand, screen size, memory size etc. Libraries, enterprise portals, and many more use faceted search, example below is the search interface of Europeana for "impressionism", the results being filtered by two facets, media type "image" and providing country "Netherlands".

Faceted search is a very intuitive way to search items in a data base. Using faceted search, the user creates at will its own algorithm of filtering, selection and possibly ranking. If you compare with the usual general search engine results, two major advantages appear. The search is multidimensional, and the algorithm is transparent to the user. The system does not apply fancy, smart but opaque algorithms, based on guesses of what the user is looking for. It provides an interface where the user's natural intelligence can be put into action. In short, faceted search provides a good collaborative environment where artificial and human intelligence work together, the former at the service of the latter.

Given the above, one can wonder why general search engines such as Google do not propose faceted search facilities over their results, instead of an unidimensional list of ranked results. A technical answer coming to mind is that such engines do not search items in a collection of objects of which semantic descriptions are stored in a data base, but resources indexed by keywords. That used to be true, but the argument does not seem to hold anymore in the current state of affairs. The Knowledge Graph, however it's implemented, is a data base where things have declared semantic types and properties which could be used for faceted search. It would be a good way to see types and properties defined by schema.org vocabulary put explicitly into action as facets (Creative Work, Person, Place, Event, Business, Intangible ...).

I cannot imagine that Google and al. have never thought about this. There are certainly technical hurdles, but I can't imagine they could not be solved. So I would be curious to hear what they have to say, given that the added value to the search experience would be tremendous. Above all, it would give back to the user the power to define her own filtering on results, and reinstate the habit to do so, instead of the reductionnist Q&A dialogue which in the long run leads to pernicious intellectual laziness, unique thought, and jumping to conclusions without further checking. Our world is more and more complex, and offering simplified and unidimensional answers (presented as facts) to any question does not help to cope with complexity. Current events show us too many examples of oversimplifications and where they lead to.

I think of any of my queries to a search engine as a beam of light sent through the night of my ignorance, where possible answers are hiding as so many complex multi-faceted diamonds. I don't want any one of them, however brilliant and wonderful, make me blind to the point of missing all the rest. Every faceted answer should reflect back a new and unexpected part of the spectrum, without exhausting the question we should always keep alight.


Search is not only for entities

The Knowledge Graph is a great achievement, but its systematic use at the top of search results is sometimes counter-productive. Knowledge Graph nodes are mostly named entities (individuals, particulars) such as people, places, works (movies, books, music tracks), products ... and rarely universals (concepts, topics, common names). And if an ambiguous search sentence can refer to either particular entities or universals, the former seem to always float at the top with their fancy Knowledge Graph display, and relevant results about universals kicked down. The assumption underlying this default behavior is that people search mostly for particular entities (things), not information about some universal (topic). The hijacking of common names as brand names we already pointed here in the past adds to the issue, along with the growing number of work titles using common names. Add to this the magic of the Knowledge Graph knowing entities by various names in different languages, and you end up with examples like the following. 

For a recent post I searched about the Theory of Everything. If instead of going straight to the Wikipedia article I ask Google, here is what I get.

I was searching for information about a theory in physics, and I get all about a movie which happens to have taken as title the name of this theory. And since my browser default language is French, the Knowledge Graph is kind enough to present me the movie under its French adaptation title "Une merveilleuse histoire du temps", which you can imagine even if you don't speak a lot of French, is all but a translation of "Theory of Everything". The silver lining is that if I search for "Théorie du tout" in French, I have not the same problem, since the movie is not known in French under this title which would be the correct translation of the original one. The first result for "Théorie du tout" is the Wikipedia article on this topic, as expected.
You can play the same funny game with "Gravity", "Frenzy" and many more. Given the limited supply of common names, and the exponential growth of named entities in the Knowledge Graph, all tapping into the commons for their names and titles, such ambiguities are likely to end up being rather the rule than exceptions. Search engines should provide a simple way to opt out entities, so that I could ask "Dear Google, give me resources about the topic called gravity, and I don't care about any individual entity with gravity in its name." And yes, Google, you can do it, I'm sure, just take example on BabelNet, where you can sort results by entities, concepts, music, media etc.  A bit of typing goes a long way ...

Why do I write, really?

Teodora Petkova strikes again with her new and tiny (her word) Web Writing Guide. Her savvy recommendations on the Whys and Whats of writing on/for the Web made me wondering if I ever applied any single one of them, and in particular in this blog which has been for years the main place I've been writing and publishing. The rest of my publication track consisting in a handful of conference or journal papers, a chapter in a collaborative book, some of those still published online, but not really written "for the Web". Not to mention hundreds of messages to various community lists and comments on the social Web, but does that really count as Web writing? 
It might be too late and pointless anyway to consider those recommendations, since I have no tangible reason to keep on writing altogether. Retired from business for half a year, not participating any more in discussions of various communities, not even following them, I have nothing to sell or even to give away here. I could as well forever hold my peace, instead of indulging in more wordy selfies. Nevertheless, I'll make the exercise of going through some of Teodora's recommendations, to see if I ever met them. Just for the fun of it.
  • Write for people
Of course, who else? But I've never thought of anyone in particular as the target of what I write here, although I know I write better when I think about a potential reader. Somehow, each post on this blog could (should) be read as a personal letter to some unknown reader. To make it short, I have no market, no target audience. I know I have a handful of more or less faithful followers, and hope the few serendipitous visitors will bring home some food for thought. 
  • Write for machines
Believe it or not, I really don't give a damn about that one. I've been a so-called Semantic Web evangelist because I liked the ideas behind it and the conceptual debates it triggered (not to mention I was also paid for it), but I never applied its technology to this blog. I even did everything to blur the radar of search engines by changing both URI and title several times. No semantic markup either, beyond a few (rather random) tags. I like the idea of those pages being as easy to reach as the places I love in my mountains. Not unreachable, but not much advertised either, with paths not difficult to follow, but not obvious to find either. And actually, since I'm not able to define or name what I am about, I prefer search engines to ignore those pages than indexing them under any silly topic.
  • Write for joy
This is certainly the only recommendation I follow. Nothing to add.

But the Whys are not the main point of difficulty. Regarding the Whats, I must admit I am completely off track.
  • What is it that you really want to say and cannot help but share?
I'm afraid most of the time I don't know before I've finished writing it.
  • What is it that your audience needs?
As said above, I've no audience, and therefore cannot possibly know what it needs. 

If I try to apply the following ... The intersection of the answers to these questions is the answer to “What to write?” Well I won't say this intersection is empty, but it looks rather undecidable.

Sorry, Teodora, but your recommendations are either useless to me, or they lead to the conclusion that I should not write at all before answering the two above. Unless the write for joy is enough of an excuse to keep writing. 

When I was a child, half a century ago, my school teacher (who happened to be also my father, the teachers offer is scarce in village schools) was an adept of the texte libre. This is the writing exercise I still prefer. Following the Freinet pedagogy, the original free production was selected and amended by the group and eventually published in the class journal. The final text was a collective production based on an individual original idea. Does not that sound quite Webby, back in the 1950's, in remote French village schools?


Backtracking signs

This image has been for some years now my avatar on various places on the Web. I've chosen it obviously because it's a nice image taken in my dear mountains, but also as an illustration of what Quine called the inscrutability of reference.
This image is a sign, elle nous fait signe. To each of you, depending on your experience and culture, it will evoke something different and particular  - or nothing at all. But does it only evoke, or does it represent something? Could a machine figure what it is? I would be curious to submit this image to some automatic description algorithm. Would we get something like tracks in the snow in a winter mountain landscape? That would not be bad. If it succeeds in adding several people wearing snowshoes, I would be most impressed. And I would be really baffled if it could guess how many people have passed, and in which direction.

Now let's take it as a support for an exercise in backtracking. Let's move a few steps towards the genesis of this image, trying to figure out its deeper meaning. Someone shot this image on a fair winter day (supposing it's a genuine photograph and not one of those fancy computer-generated graphics). In either case what you are viewing here and now is just a reconstruction on the screen of your device of a pack of bits, a file uploaded to Google servers from my computer, this local file being itself a resized and trimmed copy of an original one generated by a numeric camera. Several copies, deconstructions and reconstructions happened since the original shot.
Now just trust me it's a "genuine" photograph of some "real" landscape, and imagine yourself back at the scene, along with the photographer. Given the point of view, he's certainly on the tracks himself. Does he follow the tracks let by another group of walkers? Does he belong to this group? Is he looking back at its own tracks? Has he followed the same track way up and down, and the several people who seem to have passed here were actually the same person, once walking up and once down, or maybe several times up and down? Whatever. Who could answer those questions now, except the one who shot the image? Days, months, seasons and years have passed since. Later on the same day other walkers have come following the tracks or crossing them and messing the signs. A few days after a new snow fall has erased them all, and in April the winter memories have vanished in the streams joyfully cascading down. And another summer, and another winter. Going back there now won't tell you anything about those tracks, even if the landscape looks quite the same, even if some walker has taken today the same path, letting similar tracks.

But figuring the genesis of the image itself is not the end of the backtracking. I've chosen this image to represent me on the Web, among thousands of possible images. How can you interpret this choice? Is it a track of mine, captured by someone else, a track of someone else taken by me, my own track taken by myself, a far-fetched form of selfie? Maybe nothing of the sort. Maybe I found this image somewhere on the Web and thought it looked like me, someone who walks, and is often no more where you expected to meet him.

I could answer all those questions, but I won't. I'd rather imagine you wondering as you would wonder, hopefully, finding some perfect pebble stone on the seashore, about the long story it silently tells, the slow cooking of rock in the depth of Earth and its upraising over millions of years, the sudden earthquake or storm or the patient bite of ice cracking the rock, the fall off the cliff, the long rolling travel downstream to the sea, the patient work of currents, tides and waves until this unique morning where its glow on the sand have captured your eyes.

Think about it, just every thing is somehow akin to this image of a track or that pebble stone. Telling stories, giving time its depth by linking us to the past as so many threads. Trees and rocks, bowls, clothes, jewels, printed words and texts. And every so-called Web resource. They are not just sitting idly here and now, but are signs worth backtracking.