Saturday, 28 July 2012


I'm not a great sports fan. I have been known to watch some big events; England football games, the rugby world cup, that kind of thing, but the Olympics has always bored the shit out of me. Athletics just isn't that interesting; it's like a school sports day blown up to monstrous proportions. Still, it's come to my adopted home city anyway, with all of its Zil lanes for the 76,000 strong "Olympic family" of bigwigs, sponsors and assorted hangers-on, its vanloads of police with machine guns, helicopter gunships and surface to air missile batteries, its heavy-handed corporate censorship, its road closures and general self-important pomp. Londoners have carped. We are not as a city easy to impress. After 2,000 years, London has endured sacking by Celts, plague, fire, the Blitz, the IRA and al Qaeda, oh, and by the way, two previous Olympic games. Pardon us if we don't swoon at the prospect of a third. Nevertheless, I have enough residual pride in my country and my city that when it came to last night's opening ceremony, I didn't want it to be embarrasssing. I watched with fingers crossed. "Just don't be shit", I Tweeted. It wasn't.

If the Olympics are boring, opening and closing ceremonies tend to be even more so, with lots of bland totalitarian marching and dancing in unison in bright lycra costumes and vapid sentiments about fraternity and peace and giant doves being unleashed. Four years ago Beijing had pulled out all the stops to send the kind of message about China's arrival on the world stage that Dr Goebbels would have approved of, and we had limply slunk away after Boris Johnson had looked manic with his shirt hanging out and some second rate slebs farted around on a red bus. Oh God, we all thought; 2012 is going to be really embarrassing, isn't it? Well fortunately, no. Danny Boyle rose to the challenge, and managed to produce something both impressive, stirring, at times confusing, occasionally bonkers, but identifiably British and definitely the best opening ceremony I have ever seen, perhaps the best it's possible to conceive of, given the constraints it has to work within.

We had all seen the teletubbies-style layout of England's Green and Pleasant Land in the preview, and had rightly been a bit suspicious about trying to represent the country as a John Majoresque fantasy of bicycling nuns and cricket on the village green, but that was swept away by the impressively done sequence of the Industrial Revolution, Kenneth Branagh as Isembard Kingdom Brunel as Caliban from the Tempest declaiming loudly underneath a cross between Silbury Hill and Glastonbury Tor. In a kind of 'four ages of Britain', we moved from the 18th century's pastoral idyll to the industrial 19th and then to the 20th century (exemplified, apparently, by the NHS, but then it's a closer thing to a state religion in Britain than Anglicanism ever was), and finally the digital era of the 21st. Boyle tried to cram in just about everything he could, from Shakespeare and Blake to JK Rowling, from Elgar to the Beatles and the Arctic Monkeys, James Bond, Mr Bean and even the Internet care of Tim Berners-Lee, but it served as an effective reminder that while the days of our industrial muscle and globe-spanning Empire may be (fortunately) behind us, we are still a cultural superpower. He played unashamedly to the home crowd - things moved so fast that even as a native I'm sure I missed things, and there's surely no way someone from overseas would have identified Eastenders or Michael Fish, but managed to be inspiring and even emotional without being mawkish. And above all I think it succeeded in winning the hearts even of cyncial Brits because the ceremony had something that the Olympics is generally conspicuously lacking - a sense of humour. From the utterly lunatic sequence of the Queen 'skydiving' into the arena with Bond to Rowan Atkinson daydreaming about Chariots of Fire, it wasn't afraid to be funny. Take that, po-faced mandarins. Our singing children weren't dubbed either, and our fireworks weren't CGI-enhanced.

The games themselves will be as dull as they always are, but I think everyone in Britain is walking just a little taller this morning. "And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills?" Well Mr Blake, even if only for one evening, yes, perhaps it was.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Most Human Human

Last night I went on a whim to a lecture at the Royal Institution given by Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human, a book about his experiences of taking part in the Loebner Prize, an annual competition based around Alan Turing's famous 'Turing Test' thought experiment. Christian was talking about artificial intelligence, and the way it is changing what it means to be human. The title of the talk comes from one of the sub-prizes awarded at the Loebner Prize - there is an award for 'most human program' and also for the human that most judges guessed was a human - the 'most human human'.

It was an interesting experience on several levels. Firstly, I had never actually been inside the RI before, although as a teenager and budding scientist I used to love the televised Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and watched them avidly, even though (in an era before video recorders) it sometimes meant getting up at 6:30am or the like. This lecture was in that same lecture theatre, which is a lot smaller and more intimate than it looks on TV, and where people like Michael Faraday and HG Wells have lectured. I also dicovered the RI has a very nice (if understaffed, at least last night) bar and restaurant which is open to the public and which I'll definitely be making more use of.

Anyway, the lecture. He started off with a potted history of the philosophy of what it meant to be human, from Aristotle to Descartes, and the theory that the thing that differentiated us most from the animal and plant kingdoms was our capacity for rational and abstract thought. Then he ran through a history of artificial intelligence, reminding us that 'computer' used to be a job description for mathematicians, and that Turing only used the word by way of analogy - 'this machine... well it's a bit like a computer'. Now 60 years on the definition has flipped, and the computer is the machine, and we use it as an analogy for a human who is skilled at maths. He described the way that computers have staked out territory that we once thought of as belonging purely to humans, but argued that the easiest things to duplicate via a machine were exactly those things we once most valued in ourselves and considered made us distinctively human (playing chess 25 moves in advance, knowing the answer to Jeopardy questions), while the most difficult to automate were actually those things we take for granted (recognising people, understanding language, walking around without bumping into things). In AI circles this is known as Moravec's Paradox, but Christian suggested that now that we are measuring ourselves against machines rather than animals, it is precisely these biological skills that we may come to value more.

For the second part he moved into a discussion about the Turing Test, and how we judge whether someone else is human through a low bandwidth medium like text messaging. He pointed out that in fact we now all do it every day, every time we read an email and decide if it has come from a spambot or a real human, and asked us to concentrate on the next batch of emails we scan, and work out at which point we decided if this was a human or a machine, and to try and analyse what our decision making process was. This part of the talk roamed through speed dating, CAPTCHA codes (where a machine is, ironically, deciding if we are human or not) and the dreaded autocorrect, where the AI is interposing itself between us and our audience, trying to second guess us, and in so doing smoothing out precisely those human foibles that make us distinct. With reference to the hacker that accessed Sarah Palin's Yahoo account, he discussed computer security and how we are moving away from content-led security (passwords, ID codes) which computers find easy but we don't, back towards form-led security like signatures and biometric recognition, and the ways that we recognise each other (voices, faces). He argues that human and machine intelligence are already in a symbiotic relationship, and so changes in machine intelligence will continue to change how we view ourselves and how we relate to each other.

The talk had some interesting ideas, and was a great way to spend 90 minutes, but somehow left a lot of loose ends. I suppose it was aiming to make you think a bit - and buy his book of course! But as to the future - when I asked him about Searle and the Chinese Room he clearly came down on the Strong AI side of the argument, that human intelligence is in effect a physical process which will, ultimately, be simulated or duplicated to the point where we can no longer tell the difference. However, he did admit that we're nowhere near there yet. Even now the best Loebner Prize programs can only fool humans 25% of the time under perfect conditions (the judge only gets 5 minutes of interaction purely via text). Still, Turing predicted a 30% success rate by 2000. He wasn't that far off, was he?