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.


  1. yes we also watched the Ayn Rand BBC programme. I had no idea her ideas had been so influential! I wonder if they didn't exaggerate it a bit.

  2. I wondered the same too, but was going to reserve judgement until someone created some more hours in the day to enable me to watch the rest of the series!