Daily Archives: March 24, 2009

The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine

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BRAIN POWER: By about 2020 a $1,000 computer will at least match the processing power of the human brain. By 2029 the software for intelligence will have largely been mastered. © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/ ANDREY VOLODIN

The accelerating pace of technological progress means that our intelligent creations will soon eclipse us–and that their creations will eventually eclipse them

Scientific American | Mar 23, 2009

By Ray Kurzweil

Sometime early in this century the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within a quarter of a century, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. By around 2020 a $1,000 computer will at least match the processing power of the human brain. By 2029 the software for intelligence will have been largely mastered, and the average personal computer will be equivalent to 1,000 brains.

Once computers achieve a level of intelligence comparable to that of humans, they will necessarily soar past it. For example, if I learn French, I can’t readily download that learning to you. The reason is that for us, learning involves successions of stunningly complex patterns of interconnections among brain cells (neurons) and among the concentrations of biochemicals known as neurotransmitters that enable impulses to travel from neuron to neuron. We have no way of quickly downloading these patterns. But quick downloading will allow our nonbiological creations to share immediately what they learn with billions of other machines. Ultimately, nonbiological entities will master not only the sum total of their own knowledge but all of ours as well.

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Re-Engineering Our Motivations With Brain Implants

As this happens, there will no longer be a clear distinction between human and machine. We are already putting computers—neural implants—directly into people’s brains to counteract Par kinson’s disease and tremors from multiple scle rosis. We have cochlear implants that restore hear ing. A retinal implant is being de veloped in the U.S. that is intended to provide

at least some visual perception for some blind individuals, basically by replacing certain visual-processing circuits of the brain. A team of scientists at Emory University implanted a chip in the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim that allowed him to use his brainpower to move a cursor across a computer screen.

In the 2020s neural implants will improve our sensory experiences, memory and thinking. By 2030, instead of just phoning a friend, you will be able to meet in, say, a virtual Mozam bican game preserve that will seem compellingly real. You will be able to have any type of ex perience—business, social, sexual—with anyone, real or simulated, regardless of physical proximity.

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Transatlantic EU-US “rift” over global crisis being overplayed

G20 summit: EU and US are sparring, not feuding

A much-written-about transatlantic “rift” between Europe and the US on the response to the financial crisis may have been overplayed.

Telegraph | Mar 23, 2009

By Pierre Briançon

Framed in somewhat hackneyed terms, this is the debate: the US wants to focus on stimulus – which Europeans are resisting. And the EU wants to talk about financial regulation – which the US supposedly isn’t that interested in. But in reality the two sides aren’t that far apart.

Ben Bernanke’s speech this week at the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that common ground does exist. By calling for broad reforms and stricter financial regulations – not only in the US, but on a global scale – the Federal Reserve chairman seemed to sing in tune with the French and German leaders, who are trying to place the issue at the top of the April G20 meeting in London.

There are certainly differences of position and perspective. The US, as the largest debtor nation in the world, would like others to help.

Europe – some tend to forget – is a common market bound by a common currency, but not an economic policy decision centre. European leaders fear that talking mostly about the stimulus at the G20 would squander an opportunity to address the deep-rooted causes of the crisis. And some in the US feel that Europe should get a better sense of urgency about the recession.

But American decision-makers recognize that better regulation is crucial and necessarily global while European leaders are sensitive to the daily flow of dismal figures, followed by other terrible numbers showing the recession is worse than thought. They can’t simply wait for the distant results expected from their stimulus plans. In any case, everyone is trying out the same basic remedies: aggressive monetary and fiscal policies, support for the financial system, and a few doses of populism

The US and Europe should recognize that they have plenty of common ground. Then they could take the G20 meeting seriously, work on concrete proposals and forget about scoring political points. This shouldn’t be too much to ask. Adversarial rhetoric is risky, especially in a crisis.

Stasi HQ UK… where details of all your journeys are secretly logged and kept for a decade

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Snoop centre: The ‘Status Park 4’ building near Heathrow monitors travelers

Daily Mail | Mar 23, 2009

By Jason Lewis

This anonymous office building on a business park near Heathrow Airport is where the Government has begun monitoring millions of British holidaymakers using its controversial new ‘terrorist detector’ database.

The top-secret computer system – tied into the airlines’ ticketing network – makes judgments about travel habits and passengers’ friends and family to decide if they are a security risk.

Like something from a science-fiction film, the Home Office has designed it to spot a ‘criminal’ or terrorist before they have done anything wrong.

The building’s address is, some might say sinisterly, called Status Park 4.

But the intrusiveness of the system at the heart of Government’s so-called ‘e-Borders’ scheme has provoked such fury among civil liberties campaigners that some consider it akin to a modern-day Stasi headquarters.

All the information passengers give to travel agents, including home addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, passport details and the names of family members, is shared with an unknown number of Government agencies for ‘analysis’ and stored for up to ten years.

But even as the ‘profiling’ system goes live, its reliability is being called into question.

An internal Home Office document obtained by The Mail on Sunday reveals that during testing one ‘potential suspect’ turned out to be an airline passenger with a spinal injury flying into Britain with his nurse.

‘Suspect’ requests likely to cause innocent holidaymakers to get ‘red flags’ as potential terrorists include ordering a vegetarian meal, asking for an over-wing seat and travelling with a foreign-born husband or wife.

The system will also ‘red flag’ passengers buying a one-way ticket and making a last-minute reservation and those with a history of booking tickets and not showing up for the flights.

A previous history of travel to the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran will also trigger an alarm, as will those with a record of sponsoring an immigrant from any of these countries.

Starting during the Easter holiday rush, millions of people will be checked by the new National Border Targeting Centre (NBTC).

By the end of the year the NBTC, which is recruiting 250 staff, will have been relocated to another office near Manchester Airport and will be analysing the movements of 120million UK travellers.

Initially it will target airlines but will be expanded to check passengers on ferries and trains, including some journeys within the UK.

At the heart of the system is a highly classified computer algorithm designed to pick out people to be searched, questioned by security staff or barred from flying.

An internal Home Office Border and Immigration Agency document explains how Britain’s new system will work.

Written by Tim Rymer, head of the Joint Border Operations Centre, the forerunner to the new NBTC, it explains how it will use ‘Passenger Name Record’ (PNR) information given when travellers buy a ticket.

The document, written in March last year after a trial examining 30million passengers, reveals: ‘PNR is checked against profiles of behavioural patterns which indicate risk activity.

‘Profiles are run to identify behaviour, not to identify individuals, and are based on evidence and intelligence.’

Mr Rymer revealed that the information secured from the airlines for e-Borders would then also be available to other unnamed Government departments and held for up to ten years.

He wrote: ‘E-Borders acts as a single window for carriers to provide data to Government.’

The system is bound to cause concerns about the handling of confidential personal data.

But Mr Rymer reported that he was ‘confident our use of PNR data is proportionate and complies with robust data-protection safeguards’.

Intending to show how his team double-checked the computerised suspect reports, Mr Rymer admitted: ‘Profiling identified a potential suspect; however further examination of his booking details revealed that the passenger was suffering from a spinal injury and was being escorted by a nurse.

‘In this way the PNR information enabled the passenger to be eliminated from the profile match.’

Others flagged up then eliminated as suspects included travellers with comments on their bookings including: ‘Please treat passenger with sensitivity – death in the family’ or ‘Wheelchair requested – broken leg’.

The system was originally designed to identify suspect freight shipments.

Until now international no-fly lists have been based on painstaking intelligence and people’s criminal records.

But the Border and Immigration Agency’s new ‘rule-based targeting’ system works by building up a complete picture of passengers’ travel history and the detailed information they give to airlines and travel agencies when booking a flight.

It compares these answers and requests to other government databases and also shares the information with other countries around the world. The computer then makes value judgments about whether peculiar decisions and requests fit its secret terrorist or criminal profiles.

In the United States, where the Department of Homeland Security has been running a similar system for several years, people with a poor driving record have been subjected to further checks.

The American system has also been criticised for awarding so-called ‘terrorism points’ to passengers depending on their level of ‘suspicious’ travel activity.

The Home Office argues the e-Borders system will ‘transform our border control to ensure greater security, effectiveness and efficiency’.

‘To do so,’ the department says, ‘we will make full use of the latest technology to provide a way of collecting and analysing information on everyone who travels to or from the United Kingdom.’

But the UK system, and others across Europe that all share their passenger data, are facing increasing criticism.

The EU’s Home Affairs Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry examining whether the use of profiling, particularly when it focuses on particular ethnic groups, is illegal.

In searching for terrorists, and flagging people who have travelled to the Middle East or Pakistan, the system is likely to pick out a high proportion of Muslims.

In its initial report the EU committee says using this data is against EU regulations and the practice is leading to a lack of trust in law enforcement and the fear of discrimination.

It adds that it is ‘concerned [the] system providing for the collection of personal data of passengers travelling to the EU could provide a basis for profiling…on the basis of race or ethnicity’.

And the EU report continues: ‘Repeated concerns raised by the [European] Parliament in connection with racial, ethnic and behavioural profiling in the context of data protection, law-enforcement co-operation, exchange of data and intelligence, aviation and transport security, immigration and border management and anti-discrimination measures have not so far been adequately addressed.’

Israel frowns on China award’s Nazi SS-like logo

Agence France-Press | Mar 24, 2009

Israel’s embassy in Beijing said yesterday it wants to meet China’s quality watchdog over the logo of a brand award similar to the symbol of the SS, a Nazi unit infamous for its role in the Holocaust.

nazi_ssChina Top Brand awards are handed out every year to deserving businesses, and the logo – which the firms display as a badge of quality – contains two blue zig-zags in a white circle that resemble the SS emblem.

The SS, or Schutzstaffel, was Nazi Germany’s elite security and military unit and administered the regime’s death camps.

“I have contacted China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) in order to get a meeting,” Israeli embassy spokesman Guy Kivetz said.

The secretariat of the committee that hands out the awards belongs to the AQSIQ.

“As we are well aware and understand the sensitivity and the association this logo can create, we intend to raise the matter with the organization as soon as possible in order to explain the sensitivity,” Kivetz said.

He would not comment on whether he wanted the watchdog to change the symbol, or what outcome he expected from the meeting.

But he was keen to emphasize that the Israeli embassy did not see the logo as an expression of anti-Semitism.

“It is important to understand that the Top China Brand Award, as well as the Chinese people in general, are not suspected of being anti-Semitic in any way or form,” he said.

“What is sensitive and problematic in the eyes of Israelis and Jews or even non-Jewish Europeans is not perceived as problematic to Chinese eyes because it does not in any way create the same associations.”

The website of the China Top Brand Award describes the logo as four number 1’s that partly symbolize the evaluation process – “science, fairness, openness, and justice.”

The badge of quality has been awarded to several famous Chinese companies, such as Haier, the world’s fourth largest white goods manufacturer, and Lenovo, the PC firm.

Vermont’s need to secede

The move toward independence

Vermont Cynic | Mar 23, 2009

By Katie Gioia

by Andrew Becker

by Andrew Becker

“Vermont could govern itself better.”

In making this statement, Frank Bryan, a UVM political science professor, speaks not just for himself, but voices the opinion of the growing Vermont independence movement.

Vermont secessionists believe the federal government is corrupt and wish to make Vermont an independent republic, according to Bryan.

From 1777 to 1791, before Vermont became the fourteenth state, the federal government was different, freshman Tyler Wilkinson-Ray said.

“The makeup of the U.S. government at that time was a lot different than it is now – it was really the United States,” he said.

“Now we see a very different federal government, where the federal government has a lot of power and designates certain tasks to the states.”

Thomas Naylor, founder of Second Vermont Republic, a think tank promoting Vermont independence based in Charlotte, Vt., said that “over 75 percent of Vermonters said the U.S. government has lost its moral regard.”

“A big part of it for me is not just wanting more power,” he said. “The United States government is morally corrupt.”

Rob Williams, editor and publisher of Vermont Commons, a multimedia independent statewide news journal, said, “The federal government, we believe, has overstepped its constitutional authority in so many different ways. It’s corrupt to the core. It’s too centralized, too bloated, too unresponsive to the needs of most citizens in this country.”

Williams hopes to spread the word about Vermont independence through Vermont Commons, which publishes a newspaper six times a year, along with blogs, video and radio updates daily.

“We founded Vermont Commons in part because a number of us felt like, how are we going to get from here to there? How are we going to get from Vermont in the United States to Vermont as an independent republic?” he said.

UVM political science professor Frank Bryan agrees with the common opinion that Vermont secession is a radical movement.

“I think they [my views] are radical! There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But we’re talking peaceful, we [Vermonters] are a very peaceful bunch. And we’re very safe, because we know [secession] probably isn’t going to happen.”

Wilkinson-Ray said he struggled with the notion of agreeing with a radical view.

“It is a radical idea, but I’m not a very radical person, so I was very hesitant with the whole secession idea,” he said. “It took me a lot of time to think through it and decide that I do support it.”

“I really think it is the best option for Vermont. Vermonters know their own needs. To be honest, Obama might be doing great things down in Washington, but how often do you think he thinks about Vermont?”

“I was amazed to find that I didn’t see any objective criteria that suggested we couldn’t go it alone just fine – if the country were to let us go,” he said.

Williams, who is also a professor at Champlain College, wants people to overcome the connotation of the word “secession.”

“Secession is as American as apple pie,” he said, wearing a hat with the Vermont Republic flag on it. “We’re fond of pointing out that this country was founded on the principle of secession.

“The very first action word in the Declaration of Independence is ‘dissolve,’ which is what secession means. So it’s when a smaller political group decides to leave a larger political group,” he said.

“New Englanders actually were the first group of people in the country to champion secession as an option. One of our jobs at Vermont Commons is to remind New Englanders, and Vermonters, of their own history,” Williams said.

He believes that a real discussion of an independent Vermont can begin after people realize this.

“The first question everyone would ask us once they got over the hurdle of independence is, what’s an independent Vermont going to look like in terms of energy, in terms of food, in terms of politics, in terms of education? So what we’re doing in the newspaper is exploring all of those questions.”

State representative David Zuckerman said he finds the Vermont independence movement to be “appealing.”

“In general, I think it’s an interesting discussion,” he said. “It’s certainly very complicated. In many ways, I disagree with our federal government recently. At the same time, I don’t think certain folks are fully comprehending the challenges we would face financially if we were to secede today.”

“Politically, maybe it could work, but economically, it didn’t seem feasible.” Thomas Martin, president of the College Republicans, said. “We’d have to be too dependent on the U.S. and Canada. I don’t see the point in doing it.”

Bryan agrees that Vermont is not ready to secede at this point in time and Naylor has said that “Frank Bryan is not a secessionist” because of this belief.

“If you said Vermont could secede tomorrow, I would say to you, we’re not ready to secede tomorrow. I’m glad I’m not going to see Vermont secede from the union because I’d be desperately lonely. I don’t think I even want my kids to [see it happen],” Bryan said.

Williams is on Naylor’s side.

“There’s no more critical time than now,” Williams said.

Wilkinson-Ray, who organized a Vermont Independence forum on campus, said he would support other states’ secessions as well.

“If you look at the U.S. – if you look at the people in Vermont, to people in Georgia, to people in Texas, to the Midwest, to the Northeast, to Florida – we’re so different. We all have different ideas of things that we want out of the government.”

Junior Ian Eshelman said that he thinks the Vermont Independence is “absolutely ridiculous.”

“I think it’s stupid,” he said. “I think the people are looking for attention. If you don’t want to be part of the U.S., then move out.

There’s a reason it’s the United States, it’s not the United States minus one state.”

No one is forcing the idea of secession on Vermonters, Naylor said.

“We don’t participate in the Second Vermont Republic and the Vermont independence movement to persuade Vermont to secede,” he said. “They’ll have to decide that for themselves.”

Secessionists don’t see any big difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, Naylor added.

“The great thing about secession is that it’s every American’s birthright,” Williams said. “The conversation about secession just drives a bus through all that liberal-conservative, blue state-red state dichotomy that I think is so absurd.”

For Vermont to secede, two-thirds of the state must pass the vote in a referendum, Wilkinson-Ray said.

“It’s like leaving a marriage,” Bryan said. “You love your kids, and, at a certain level, you love and respect your spouse or your partner.

But for the good of us all, divorce might need to occur – but it shouldn’t be a divorce based on hate. There should be tears.”