Saturday, June 30, 2012

Google AI loves cats

Last week the media was full of stories about a new Google X Lab project that has created an AI which seems to love cats. I couldn't avoid the story because friends kept emailing me links to it - this story in the Financial Times is fairly typical
    Google built a huge neural network using 16,000 computer processors to see what it would learn when exposed to 10 million clips randomly selected from YouTube videos. There are basically two types of machine learning; supervised when you say "here's an example of X," "here's an example of Y" and "here's another example of X," and unsupervised learning where there is no instructor. Google's system was unsupervised, it just looked at all the YouTube clips and tried to find interesting patterns. It did - cats! Google's system can now look at a YouTube clip and tell you, with some certainty, if there is a cat in it or not.
   Before we leap to conclusions that AIs like cats or want pets first consider an old experiment conducted with neural nets for the Pentagon. They wanted to find Russian tanks in spy photos; so using supervised learning they showed a neural net hundreds of photos, some of which had tanks in and some which did not. After training the neural net could, again with some confidence, identify tanks in photos it had never previously seen. Success they thought. Later they discovered that most of the photos they had of tanks were taken on cloudy days, whereas most of the photos of countryside without tanks were sunny days. The computer had learnt to see if it was cloudy or sunny - the tanks were a coincidence. Google's network may recognize cats but not as we do.
   Actually the cats were a by-product, Google system can recognise 20,000 different things in the YouTube clips.

Friday, June 29, 2012

PINK MILK - a drama for #Turing

A drama infused with dance, PINK MILK is inspired by the true story of Alan Turing - the man basically responsible for ending WWII in Britain but later criminally charged for being gay who chose chemical castration over prison and whose death is shrouded in mystery.  Movement, nosebleeds, electronic and a talking daisy.  PINK MILK, inspired by the father of Computer Science, explodes themes of creation, destruction and eternal love.
   You can help make this happen by donating via KickStarter.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

#Darwin and #Turing's perfect and beautiful machine

The Atlantic has recently published an essay by the philosopher Daniel Dennett titled "A Perfect and Beautiful Machine: What Darwin's Theory of Evolution Reveals About Artificial Intelligence"  If you read nothing else today read this, it's quite brilliant. In this essay Dennett shows that Darwin's theory of evolution and Turing's universal machine and even artificial intelligence are founded on the same world view. Namely, that evolution has no comprehension of what it is doing just as a computer has no comprehension. However, despite this absence of understanding evolution and computers are both highly competent - they achieve results.
    I'm paraphrasing, so let's use Dennett's own words, he calls this "a strange inversion of reasoning. To this day many people cannot get their heads around the unsettling idea that a purposeless, mindless process can crank away through the eons, generating ever more subtle, efficient, and complex organisms without having the slightest whiff of understanding of what it is doing. Turing's idea was a similar -- in fact remarkably similar -- strange inversion of reasoning. The Pre-Turing world was one in which computers were people, who had to understand mathematics in order to do their jobs. Turing realized that this was just not necessary: you could take the tasks they performed and squeeze out the last tiny smidgens of understanding, leaving nothing but brute, mechanical actions. In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is."
   The essay goes on to consider what impact this "strange inversion of reasoning" has for artificial intelligence. I highly recommend it to you. The essay is from an edited book to be published shortly called Alan Turing: his work and impact, edited by S. Barry Cooper and Jan van Leeuwen.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#Turing and the #Olympic torch

How apt, a photo of the Olympic torch be passed on at the Turing statue in Manchester on Turing's birthday. Not just because it was the centenary of Turing's birth but also because he was a very keen long distance runner - he even tried out for the 1948 British Olympic marathon team. He was carrying an injury at the time and didn't make the cut.
However, as you can see in the photo above, from Turing's race number he was anticipating Twitter.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

IT meltdown at UK bank

We're all used to the occasional story about a bank crediting the wrong amount into someone's account and of them making similar small mistakes that are caused by human error - a bank teller keying in the wrong account details or the incorrect amount. However, for the last week in the UK  the NatWest bank has been virtually crippled by a systemic software failure.
    There's a very good article explaining what went wrong in the Guardian. Basically problems began last Tuesday night when NatWest "updated a key piece of software – CA-7, which controls the batch processing systems that deal with retail banking transactions – ahead of the regular nightly run". Somebody managed to corrupt the schedule in which the batch jobs are run so that they were run in an incorrect order. This doesn't sound like a big problem, but imagine you are expecting $500 to arrive in your account, which you will then use to pay your rent. Then imagine your rent is paid before the money arrives in your account causing you to become overdrawn because the processing schedule was incorrect. Now multiply this problem by millions and millions of transactions. The NatWest is apparently still trying to unravel the mess and play catch-up, whilst assuring customers that their money is safe.
   One theory stated in the Guardian piece is that the outsourcing the Batch Processing IT jobs to India has contributed to the problem because "unless you keep an army of people who know exactly how the system works, there may be problems maintaining it".

#Turing centenary RadioLive interview

The interview I gave with Graeme Hill for RadioLive on Turing's centenary is now available as an MP3 from DivShare. You can stream it from the player below or download the MP3 audio as a podcast. You can stream a Flash version from RadioLive's website.

Monday, June 25, 2012

#Turing and the Apple logo

This story never seems to die. Over Turing's centenary weekend the story that the Apple logo (the apple with a bite out) may be a reference to Turing and the poisoned apple it's alleged he committed suicide with cropped up all over the world. Articles like this one for CNN are typical - they all claim that Steve Jobs enjoyed the myth and never debunked it despite the fact that the logos designer, Rob Janoff, categorically stated that he'd never heard of Alan Turing when he designed the logo.
    Regular readers of this blog will know that I reported back in 2011 that Stephen Fry said on his BBC TV show QI that he'd asked Jobs about the Apple logo and Turing. Jobs replied It isn't true, but God we wish it were!”  It seems though that this is one creation myth that isn't going to go away. We all just want the Apple logo to refer to Turing. It's appropriateness is even more extraordinary when you look at the old rainbow colored Apple logo, which could imply a reference to Turing's homosexuality. In fact the rainbow colors were used by Apple to simply point out that the Apple II supported color graphics. However, I don't think we're going to let the truth stand in the way of a good story anytime soon.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Radio interview about #Turing and the Universal Machine

I've just done a radio interview for RadioLive about Turing's life and his legacy. You can listen online here. You can also win a copy of my book, The Universal Machine if you fill out a form on RadioLive's Graeme Hill's website (the form is below Graeme's photo).
In the radio studio

Happy birthday Alan #Turing (photo)

This has to be the best photo I've seen so far on Turing's centenary. Some people have dressed up Turing's statue in Sackville Park, Manchester. Who ever you are - well done!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

#Turing Google Doodle

It's Turing's centenary already in New Zealand and as I expected the Google Doodle is a working Turing machine. Go to Google New Zealand to see it or wait until it's June 23 in your part of the world. Here's how to solve the puzzle that is the Turing Google Doodle
   Whilst I'm here we should thank Google for their efforts in saving some of Turing's papers for the British nation, supporting Bletchley Park and sponsoring the Science Museum's Turing exhibition - well done Google.

Radio interview to coincide with #Turing's centenary

On Sunday June 24 at 10.30am (New Zealand Standard Time) I will be interviewed by Graeme Hill for RadioLive. Although this is the day after Alan Turing's centenary in New Zealand, it will still be June 23 in much of the rest of the world. The interview will be about Turing's legacy and you can listen online live. I calculate it will be broadcast at 2.30pm in San Francisco, 5.30pm in New York and 9.30pm in London on June 23, but check your world clock for your local time. Of course you'll be able to listen on demand after the interview.
   One lucky listener will win a free copy of The Universal Machine, so there's an incentive to tune in.

New Zealand first to celebrate #Turing's centenary

Alan Turing aged 5
As ever New Zealand is the first country on the planet to see in the new day. It therefore gives me great pleasure to be the first person on earth to say,   "Happy Birthday Alan!"

   There are so many reasons why we are celebrating your centenary, and there are so many more people who have yet to learn of your remarkable achievements and of your legacy - we'll not stop celebrating until 2012 is all done. Our celebrations though are tinged with sadness - almost a collective guilt for how poorly our society eventually treated you.
   However, today let's dwell on happy memories - a photograph of a 5 year old boy modeling a new sailor suit for a birthday portrait. I expect we can asume that Sara, his proud mother, was watching her "beautiful boy" being photographed. Imagine how proud she'd be now to know that whole world is celebrating her son's genius!

For information about all the events and activities still to take place celebrating Turing's centenary visit The Alan Turing Year.

Friday, June 22, 2012

#Turing apps for your iPhone or iPad

Tomorrow on the centenary of Alan Turing's birth why not impress your friends with some apps for your iPhone or iPad that reflect Turing's genius. The first is an Enigma Machine emulator called MyEnigma. You can select between different version of the machine: Enigma I, M3 and M4, Railway, G-312, or Swiss-K, and set them up just as you would a real Enigma: choose rotors, configure them, and use the plugboard to switch letters. If a friend has MyEnigma and both are set to the same settings then you can encrypt and decrypt messages just as with a real Enigma machine. You can also challenge yourself to see if you can crack the Enigma code as Alan Turing did in WWII (sorry there isn't an iOS app for his Bombe). As you can see from the screen shots MyEnigma looks quite realistic.

The second iOS app that is Turing related is the Turing Machine Simulator that 
allows you write programs for a Turing Machine, execute them and analyze the execution step by step.  The app comes with example Turing programs to play with.

Of course if you own an iPhone 4S then you can see if Siri can pass the Turing Test. Try asking it, "Siri, would you like to take the Turing Test?"
    Update: I came across this article about iOS Turing apps a couple of days after Turing's centenary.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Q. What did #Turing & #Babbage have in common?

It's not the easy answers I'm looking for like, both designed computers; Babbage the Analytical Engine and Turing the Pilot ACE. Or that both were mathematicians, or even both were obviously Englishmen.

The answer is... both were wartime codebreakers. Turing is of course celebrated for cracking German Naval Enigma whilst at Bletchley Park during WWII. He's also less well known for contributing to cracking the much more complex German High Command Lorenz code.
   What you probably didn't know is that Charles Babbage cracked the Vigenère cipher, which was a form of polyalphabetic substitution cipher (like Enigma) that had been in widespread use since the 16th century. Babbage is reputed to have cracked the cipher as early as 1846, but he didn't publish his method because the British were soon to be at war with Russian in the Crimea and the Russians were known to use the Vigenère cipher. Thus, as in WWII, the British would be able to read their enemies' intercepted messages and gain a strategic advantage. All of this history is my book The Universal Machine.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Get Alan #Turing on the new £10 note

I've mentioned this e-petition before, but now there's a Facebook page, called TuringOnTheTenner, drumming up support for the petition. If you use Facebook please pop along and like the page. If you are a UK citizen or resident also consider signing the e-petition and as TuringOnTheTenner points out don't worry that Turing would kick Darwin off the tenner since Darwin is going to be replaced anyway. So it's a question of who would best follow Darwin; Turing who invented the computer, cracked the WWII Enigma codes and brought the war to a speedier end, founded the discipline of artificial intelligence, and was a pioneer of bioinformatics, or somebody else?
[Yes, all the blog posts this week will be about Turing - it's his birthday.]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Codebreaker – Alan #Turing's life and legacy

This thursday Codebreaker a special exhibition opens at the London Science Museum to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing on June 23.  The exhibition runs until the end of July, so perhaps if you're going to London for the Olympics you could pay a visit. The exhibition covers the full range of Turing's accomplishments, from WWII codebreaking, through the development of early computers to artificial intelligence and his pioneering work on biological morphogenesis. The highlight of the exhibition is the Pilot Ace computer which Turing designed. In it's day (1950) it was the fastest computer in the world. The BBC has a short video describing the exhibition.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Computer history displays

As the science and tech world prepares to honor Alan Turing on the centenary of his birth this Saturday it seems like a good time to remind you about The University of Auckland's excellent computing history displays. If you're in Auckland you're welcome to visit the Computer Science Department and browse the displays situated on the entrance corridor and in each floor's lobby. We're open during normal business hours. However, you can visit virtually and learn more about the displays by visiting online.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The #Turing Solution (radio)

Only one week now to the centenary of Alan Turing's birth and there's still time to learn more about this remarkable man. BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast an excellent piece about his greatest contribution - the invention of the computer. You can listen online here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Win a ticket to the UK premier of The Creator on #Turing's birthday

The directors of The Creator, Al & Al, have given The Universal Machine a ticket to the premier at Manchester's Cornerhouse on July 23, the centenary of Turing's birth.

    The UK Premiere of The Creator, will be followed by a Q&A with the artists hosted by Visual Art Programme Manager and producer, Bren O’Callaghan. A far cry from the dry, sanitised interpretations of a man once shunned but now revered as a master of modern mathematics, Al & Al have chosen to blend fact with fantastical speculation in this, the re-telling of that fateful day when Turing chose to end his own life. Touching upon the myth of Snow White, Turing’s doomed encounter with his lover Arnold Murray (only yards from the current Cornerhouse site), his subsequent experimentation with Jungian psychoanalysis and the nature of human physicality versus artificial consciousness, this is both a dream of loss and sweat-beaded nightmare. This will be an opportunity for you to put your questions to filmmakers Al & Al and delve deeper into the making of their work.
   So here's how you can enter the competition. At the top of this blog you'll see a tab labelled "Free Chapter." Click on this and you can download a pre-publication version of chapter 7 of The Universal Machine. Download the version you prefer, read it and write a short review (300 words max.) and send your review to the Universal Machine. I'll select the winner from the entries and you'll be notified of how to claim your ticket for the premier of The Creator. The winner will be asked to place their review on Amazon's web page for The Universal Machine.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why smart people are stupid

Daniel Kahneman

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

The question and answer above come from an intriguing article in the New Yorker called, "Why smart people are stupid," by Jonah Lehrer that explores the work of Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, a professor of psychology at Princeton.  New research is showing that so called "smart" people are in many instances, more vulnerable to thinking errors like the one caused by the simple question above.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The #Turing Trust - pub quiz for charity

The Turing Trust is a charitable foundation set up by James Turing after a visit to Ghana in 2009. He recognised that "Alan’s boundless curiosity and desire to innovate led him to create the building blocks for the modern computer, a device which has revolutionized communication, work, and social action far beyond what he might have imagined. For anyone fortunate enough to own a computer, it is a truly transformative device, one which opens up a world of opportunity... It is this philosophy, along with the inspiring legacy left by Alan Turing, which drives the Turing Trust’s passion for its projects. Whether it is the construction of computer labs and schoolhouses for the Ghanaian children which its sponsors, the donation of desktop computers to classrooms or the sending of volunteers to serve as teachers, mentors and peers to students in the ICCES schools, the Turing Trust is committed to extending opportunities to those in greatest need of them."
   This seems like a great way to honor Turing's memory in his centenary year. One practical (and fun) thing you could do is hold an Alan Turing pub quiz with questions (and answers) provided by The Turing Trust. Any proceeds from a quiz you organise with your friends or colleagues can be donated online through the Trust's secure Virgin Money Giving facility.

eBook version of the Universal Machine

Several people have asked me, "is there an eBook version of your book?" And the simple answer is "yes, sort of." You can purchase a DRM free pdf version of The Universal Machine from my publisher's webpage for the book. You'll see under "Available Formats" a section you can expand that says "eBook" - there's a shopping cart icon beside it and clicking that will let you purchase the pdf version, which is slightly cheaper than the softcover.
   However, if you want the book in native format for the iPad or for your Kindle you'll have to wait. These versions are coming but I don't know when. However, if you go to Amazon's webpage for the book there's a link you can click requesting the publisher to provide a Kindle version - please do this if you want a Kindle version (or just do it anyway).
    BTW: from my publisher's webpage for the book you can also access a site where you can see and download excerpts from the The Universal Machine.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Hewlett Foundation: Automated Essay Scoring

As we enter the exam part of the semester, lecturers minds turn to the task (dare I say chore) of exam marking. Part of the skill of setting an exam is creating questions that are easy to mark. I for example like questions that can be answered with a diagram - much quicker to mark than several paragraphs of bad hand-writing. Of course multiple choice questions can be automatically marked by machine, but are considered inappropriate where students need to show understanding and synthesis of complex ideas.
  Thus, the idea of machines, AI's, being able to read and mark essays has long been a dream of educators. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is sponsoring the Automated Student Assessment Prize (ASAP).  "Hewlett is appealing to data scientists and machine learning specialists to help solve an important social problem.  We need fast, effective and affordable solutions for automated grading of student-written essays."
   A good article at the Singularity Hub called "Automated Grading Software In Development To Score Essays As Accurately As Humans" explores the issues surrounding this competition.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

#Prometheus creates an iconic AI

Last night I went to see the new Ridley Scott movie Prometheus (don't worry there aren't any spoilers to follow). I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and one of its highlights, for me, was a robot called David. David is indistinguishable from a person; you may remember in the 1979 movie Alien there was character, called Ash, that the crew don't even know was a robot. There's also a robot called Bishop in the sequel Aliens, though it prefers the term "artificial person."
    David is brilliantly played by Michael Fassbender, who gives the character that slightly creepy perfection, mostly carried just by his tone of voice, that HAL had in 2001. We had a lot of questions after the movie (it's that sort of film) and I wondered why the name "David?" The robot in A.I. is called David as well. Is this a coincidence?
    Below is a short film made by Prometheus' creators providing some back story for David, which shows just how good Fassbender is in the role.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The #Turing Century - build your own Enigma

The Turing Century blog is counting down to Turing's birthday on the 23rd June. In a recent post it highlights how you can build your very own Enigma machine. This could be an ideal conversation piece for your office desk to encourage your colleagues to talk about Turing and his great achievements on his centenary.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Alan Mathison #Turing 1912-1954 R.I.P.

Turing's statue in Manchester
It's June 7 here in New Zealand, the anniversary of Alan Turing's tragic death. This morning 58 years ago his housekeeper found him dead with an apple nearby, which he'd partly eaten; the apple was poisoned with cyanide. The subsequent coroner's inquest concluded Turing had committed suicide, though his mother, Sara, always believed it was a tragic accident. Other wilder theories have circulated: that Turing was murdered by the secret services to prevent him giving away top-secret information to the Russians, or even that he was about to announce a mathematical breakthrough that would have rendered all encryption useless. This later theory suggests that Turing had proven the Riemann hypothesis and thereby rendered all prime numbers discoverable. Since primes were, and still are critical to encryption, conspiracy theorists claim an intelligence agency had Turing murdered to protect their secrets. Needless to say there is no evidence to support these wild speculations.
   In 16 days we will be able to celebrate a happier event in Turing's life, namely the centenary of his birth on June 23 1912. On another happy note, yesterday we saw the transit of Venus across the Sun. I can't help that think Turing would have been fascinated by this event and watched in awe as the solar system revealed its structure.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The #Turing Enigma (movie)

Timed to coincide with the centenary of Alan Turing's birth, The Turing Enigma is a noir thriller. Shot in Manchester, a missing message from Alan Turing surfaces as part of the celebrations for his 100th birthday... in code it is the key to a century old puzzle that if solved will bestow academic immortality... and crash the world into chaos.
    Modern thriller elements are shot in black and white, with flashbacks to Turing in the 1950s in colour. The film is 75 minutes long, is certificated PG 15, and can be watched online for free -

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Read about #Turing's legacy

The Universal Machine is published!!!

It's been a long journey; back on April 5 2010 I started this blog with a post that said: "Computers you see are not like other tools that we've invented. Think of wheel and axle for example. This invention let man build carts and wagons and so more easily move heavy loads around. Thousands of years later, although we now have engines instead of horses the basic use of the invention hasn't changed. Now think of the computer. They were first used to crack military codes and design H-bombs, and then to do the payroll for large companies, but now we use them to communicate with friends, play (and compose) music, design buildings, create virtual worlds, make movies, this list is endless and constantly growing. You see the computer fundamentally does not crack codes or write blogs, a computer manipulates symbols and it can perform any task that can be represented by symbols. In this sense, in the words of Alan Turing, a computer is a "universal machine"."
   Over two years later, timed to coincide with the centenary of Alan Turing's birth the Universal Machine tells the complete story of Turing's legacy. It can be purchased from Amazon but you can read a sample chapter on this blog from the "Free Chapter" tab above.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Charles Babbage was the first steampunk

A steampunk in costume
Steampunk, Wikipedia says, is a "genre which originated during the 1980s and early 1990s and incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and speculative fiction. It involves a setting where steam power is widely used—whether in an alternate history such as Victorian era Britain or "Wild West"-era United States, or in a post-apocalyptic time —that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy."
   The Steampunk World's Fair was recently held in Piscataway, New Jersey, USA and had over 4,000 attendees. Of course the real steampunk was Charles Babbage, who features in Chapter 2, "The dawn of Computing," of The Universal Machine. Babbage actually tried to build a mechanical computer - the Analytical Engine. Although Babbage never managed to build his Engine the people at Plan 28 intend to complete his design and build a working mechanical computer.
A model of part of the Analytical Engine

#Apple has a culture of excellence - Tim Cook interview

It's been a while since we talked about Apple. Tim Cook who took over as CEO just before Steve Jobs' death last year has just given an interview at the All Things Digital conference. The interview is interesting partly because Cook normally keeps a very low profile. He talks, but not in detail, about some great new products and makes the point that "Apple has a culture of excellence."