Sunday 26 June 2011

Dust thou art, but unto silicon dost thou aspire

It used to be the case that when you wanted to use the Internet to find an answer to a query, you had to pick the keywords from the question (much in the same way students are told to approach examination questions) and then Google them. I realise as I chose ‘Google’ as a verb that, at the time, users had to ‘Yahoo’ or ‘Alta Vista’ the keywords as these were pre-Google days; maybe if/when Google is supplanted as the dominant search engine its name will remain as a verb, just as ‘hoover’ has done. The user would then have to wade through pages of results containing the keywords to find the combination which answered their original question. Google’s search technology has, without doubt, improved search results (something for which we should be glad considering the daily expansion of material available online) and the answer to the question can now – usually – be found within the first few links.

While searching for keywords to answer questions may still be the technique of choice for people who have been using the Internet for some time, a trend I have noticed over the past couple of years, and was reminded of this week while watching a group of Year 7 pupils research a topic, is for users simply to type the question they want answering into the search box and hit return.

Several years ago this would have been a fruitless approach. However, as people expect computers to become more human in their behaviour, the natural language abilities of search engines to understand what users intend by their question has been improving. Indeed, this is linked to the ideas behind the Turing Test in which the responses from a human and a computer are hoped to be indistinguishable, and the ongoing quest to build increasingly humanoid robots. Computers are still not wholly adept at parsing natural language queries, but it will not be long before it is the way we will be obliged to interact with the leading search engines.

As part of the understandable desire to make technology conform more readily to its human masters’ wants and needs, there is the clear link to the development of artificial intelligences with its associated, inevitable, and arguably frightening idea of singularity. In spite of this, I feel there is a still more worrying trend: the aspiration to human-ify technology is in direct correlation to the aspiration of humans to become more machine-like.

Our language choices reflect this and Brian Christian notes in The Most Human Human that fifty years ago, a whizzy new item of technology would be described as being ‘like a computer’, but now we are likely to find ourselves describing a human maths prodigy as ‘like a computer’. For the past couple of years there have been smartphone applications, or ‘apps’, which use readily available content combined with the phone’s GPS-determined location to show sites of interest or businesses. This is a useful tool as the user does not need to enter a long string of keywords or to wade through pages of search results to find, say, a local restaurant. However, recently the apps have developed and also switch the phone’s camera on and superimpose the labels onto the view shown on the screen. The user is therefore looking through the screen at the view they could see if they lifted their eyes, but it is more like a head-up display containing additional information which changes as the camera’s position changes. This is the type of technology that has been seen in fighter jets and the point of view shots of protagonist of the futuristic Terminator films, but is now available on an individual’s phone.

The labelled view of the world is a technologically mediated view of reality presented through – as I have observed here previously – a screen and is known as ‘AR’ or ‘augmented reality’. Users are choosing a technologically enhanced view of their surroundings and thereby negating the need to receive input – a word from the world of electronics appropriated by humans – from other humans, relying instead on their own augmented reality. Humans can have their own head-up display and use the information it presents to follow other humans before them: people who choose to do this are becoming more like the robots on production lines carrying out the repetitive tasks which they took from humans decades earlier.

To me, singularity is therefore not just the evolution – a biological word tellingly appropriated for the inorganic – of technology to reach a point where it is beyond human intelligence, rather it more worryingly reflects humankind’s wish to emulate the futuristic machines of science fiction.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Gins and Tonics

Over the past few weeks I have found myself discussing, rarely at my instigation, my favourite cocktail with a variety of people. A gin and tonic is one of the simplest cocktails but I am not sure whether it is the drink’s simplicity, its quintessential Englishness, its inevitably refreshing and invigorating effect or a combination of all three which make it such a welcome start to any evening.

The fact that it is the start to an evening – there is only one person I know who chooses to drink gin as a post-prandial cocktail – is something which is worth bearing in mind. We spend money on finding a good bottle of wine to drink with dinner, but by then, the pre-prandial drinks and the concomitant food detract from the drinker’s appreciation of the wine. While I am not advocating scrimping on the choice of wine, I am advocating thinking about the importance of the choice of ingredients in the pre-prandial gin and tonic.

At this point it might seem likely to comment on the choice of gin. While I will, the dominant ingredient, by volume (in most people’s cases, at least) is my first port of call. Schwepps and Britvic are the mainstays of many bars and restaurants and my heart always sinks if I see the bottle is Britvic. Schwepps had always been my favoured tonic – the full fat variety, not the bitter saccharine laden diet equivalent – until I was introduced to Fever Tree whose unique selling point is that they only use natural ingredients, which means that the artificial sweeteners in other tonics are eschewed in favour of sugar. While I know some people find it too sweet (arguably they are too accustomed to the bitterer chemical taste of artificial flavourings) I was a convert on my first tasting and now just have to ignore the price: while twelve individual cans of Schwepps cost around £3.50, four individual bottles of Fever Tree cost approximately £3.00. However, as the majority of the all important first drink of an evening, this is an expense worth bearing.

I mentioned individual bottles and cans of tonic and it is, of course, always essential that the tonic is freshly opened; larger bottles – unless catering for several – are without any question a false economy.

When it comes to gin the choice is much wider. Everyone has their own favoured brand, so I will merely set out the gins I have discovered and embraced or shunned. For some reason, I have ended up trying more new gins in the past six months so these are all recent impressions.

For a long time, my favoured gin was Bombay Sapphire. Its range of botanicals was a departure from the staid and long established Gordon’s and Beefeater and it was responsible for waking me up to the intricacies of gins in the first place. Tanqueray proved a satisfactory alternative and as it often now seems to be available on special offer, and therefore more cheaply than Bombay Sapphire, it has become my standard ‘house gin’.

I had always shied away from trying Tanqueray 10 because of its cost, but coming back from the USA last year, it was on special offer in duty free and a purchase ensued. It is a delicious gin and its smoothness, but complexity of botanicals made it a worthy replacement for Bombay Sapphire.

As established and readily available gins, I would recommend all of these. However, the ones I have encountered recently are more interesting and worth comment. Another from the house of Tanqueray is Tanqueray Rangpur: this is a smaller production run and uses Rangpur lemons to give it a more citrusy and refreshing taste; it quickly became a regular in the range of gins at home.

Hendricks is probably best noted for its quirky bottle, and it is a heavier gin with flavours I associate more with a pink gin. A friend drinks it with a slice of cucumber (one of its flavours) instead of the traditional citrus fruit but, as cucumber is not one of my favoured fruits, this is an embellishment I am yet to try.

Sipsmith is a small, independent distillery in London and it is possible to find the date on which your bottle of gin was produced on their website. It is a very easy drinking gin and, to use the words of many TV pundits, full of flavour.

Sacred gin is from another small independent distillery and their interest in mixing botanicals is shown through their website from which you can purchase the different distillates to experiment with mixing your own gin (a feature for which they have trademarked the name ‘OpenSauce’ with more than a nod to the technological community). Their standard gin is again a very smooth drinking gin, but there is a brighter edge to the taste than Sipsmith. Interestingly, their name derives from the fact they include Frankincense, or Boswellia Sacra as one of the botanicals.

Williams gin is from Herefordshire and made from organic cider apples which gives it a unique taste and sadly one with which – despite trying several times – I am still not entirely convinced. Tesco’s Finest range gin was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I value: sadly on this occasion, I was unable to agree with them finding it nearly undrinkable neat (part of the obligatory tasting routine) and a subsequent waste of tonic water.

As this post is already rather cumbersome, I will refrain from commenting on my choice of citrus fruit – either lemon or lime – with particular gins, apart from saying that with Bombay Sapphire it must be lime; the other gins seem to be more forgiving but lemon is (currently, at least) my general preference.

I know there are lots of gins available which I have not touched upon and I recently discovered from which a remarkable range of gins can be purchased. While it is easy to stick with old favourites, I encourage every gin drinker to explore the different varieties available from smaller distilleries: the past six months have been my most enjoyable gin drinking months since I discovered the attraction of the drink some eighteen years ago.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Demanding a response

Exploring the history of language and communication this week, my group of Year 7 students were genuinely bemused by the concept of smoke signals and carrier pigeons. While they knew what they were and understood the concept, the need to use them was seemingly inconceivable to them.

We are all aware that we now live in a society which expects – and to some extent demands – instant responses to electronic communication. Text messages, or short messages as they were originally named, first started appearing in the early 1990s and they were a logical development of the telegram which was already well past its heyday. However, while a telegram still had an inherent element of delay as it had to be delivered to, or collected by, its recipient once transmitted, texts arrive instantly on the phone secreted somewhere about your person.

Try an experiment: next time your phone beeps to herald the arrival of text, don’t press ‘View’ for ten minutes. I predict two possible outcomes. Either, you start panicking and an overwhelming sense of nervousness and uncertainty pervades your body and you give in and read it, or, you end up forgetting about it and read it a couple of hours later.

If you end up forgetting about it and there was no telephone call chasing you, the chances are it was unimportant in the first place. If, however, you gave in and read it, it is because we now have a Pavlovian response to communication and the social demands placed upon us by others. We are happy to disrupt whatever we are doing to respond immediately and flit between tasks meaning that we are ultimately working – and therefore thinking – less efficiently and less effectively.

The demanded immediacy of response has crept into society as technology has infiltrated our lives. There was, as people of a certain generation often cite, a time when people had to stick to arrangements they had made and turn up as agreed, rather than texting at the last minute to rearrange, and a time when if you telephoned someone you knew they were sitting in their hall talking on a device plugged into the wall. How it was possible for some of the greatest human achievements in the history of the world to be made without exchanging texts, instant messaging, or telephoning will forever remain shrouded in mystery.

While I know that technological developments in communication have saved people’s lives and improved situations for others, we have continued to welcome new media into our lives and find uses for them where none existed previously. Inventiveness and creativity are part of what makes us human but as we become more like the networked computers of the internet, permanently connected and switched on, are we not at risk of losing a little bit of that which made us human in the first place?

PS. If you do try the little experiment, I would love to hear how you coped and how old you are in a comment below (anonymous posts are fine if you want to keep age and name separate).

Sunday 5 June 2011

A mental snapshot

Deciding what to blog about is, for me, always a little tricky as I have a fairly diverse range of interests. As such, I decided I would pick five things I have discovered this week and share them in no particular order.

Number 1: The novel Neuromancer by William Gibson. Written in 1984, this is seen as a defining work in the cyberpunk genre. It is widely credited with introducing the word ‘cyberspace’ to the language although Gibson had, in fact, used it two years previously in a short story. The concept behind the virtual reality based future it portrays was borrowed by, or possibly provided the inspiration for, the 1999 film The Matrix. Neuromancer is, apparently, going to be released as a film at some point this year, 27 years after the novel and 12 years after The Matrix presented terrifying visions of the future.

qrcodeNumber 2: QR Codes (example pictured left). I have noticed these appearing for sometime and knew (from days gone by when I knew an unhealthy amount about barcodes) that they were 2D barcodes and surmised that they were intended to be scanned by a smartphone. I now know that while they took off in Japan a couple of years ago, they are only just beginning to take more of a hold in America and Europe. They can contain a text string and are predominantly used for marketing purposes to allow (most often) a URL, contact details or geographical position (latitude/longitude) to be shared quickly and accurately. Artists and writers have already tried to adopt this form as the text length works well for short poems and, as the error correction allows for a 30% deterioration in the code while still remaining readable, there is some flexibility in the design.

Number 3: The history of Las Vegas. As a place I have been visiting with worrying regularity for the past 11 years, I have seen the city changing and growing. It has only been a city for a hundred years and realising that I have seen a tenth of its history for myself I have found a couple of books about its development from a railroad town to the entertainment Mecca it is today. Some of the people involved in its history are remarkable and it begins to become fractionally clearer why there is nowhere quite like it (despite a few pretenders) on Earth.

Number 4: The Russian/American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Although I have only seen the first programme in the BBC series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace the influence of her support of rational egoism and rejection of altruism on the development of policies and technologies in the US since the 1970s is remarkable. While the idea of technology being able to take over human decisions is a familiar one, seeing the reach of these ideas and their global impact is frightening.

Number 5: The Loebner Prize. In 1950 Alan Turing asked how people could tell if machines could think. He proposed a test whereby if a human could not tell whether the responses they received in a conversation were generated by a machine or another human, the machine could be said to be thinking. Each year since 1990, Hugh Loebner has funded a competition in which the most human-like computer wins a prize; as of 2010’s competition the grand prize for a machine whose responses are indistinguishable from a human’s is still unclaimed. The book The Most Human Human describes the 2009 competition from the author’s perspective as a human subject and considers how human conversation varies from an artificial intelligence’s conversation.