Semi-autonomous agents: What are they, exactly?

This post is intended to be the first in a series of long form articles (how many, I don't yet know) on the topic of semi-autonomous software agents, a technology that I've been using fairly heavily for just shy of twenty years in my everyday life. My goals are to explain what they are, go over the history of agents as a technology, discuss how I started working with them between 1996e.v. and 2000e.v., and explain a little of what I do with them in my everyday life. I will also, near the end of the series, discuss some of the software systems and devices I use in the nebula of software agents that comprises what I now call my Exocortex (which is also the name of the project), make available some of the software agents which help to expand my spheres of influence in everyday life, and talk a little bit about how it's changed me as a person and what it means to my identity.

This series of articles was previously highly summarized in the form of a presentation at the invitation of Ripple Labs in August of 2015.

So, let's kick this off. What are software agents, exactly? One working definition is that they are utility software that acts on behalf of a user or other piece of software to carry out useful tasks, farming out busywork that one would have to do oneself to free up time and energy for more interesting things. A simple example of this might be the pop-up toaster notification in an e-mail client alerting you that you have a new message from someone; if you don't know what I mean play around with this page a little bit and it'll demonstrate what a toaster notification is. Another possible working definition is that agents are software which observes a user-defined environment for changes which are then reported to a user or message queuing system. An example of this functionality might be Blogtrottr, which you plug the RSS feeds of one or more blogs into, and whenever a new post goes up you get an e-mail containing the article. Software agents may also be said to be utility software that observes a domain of the world and reports interesting things back to its user. A hypothetical software agent may scan the activity on one or more social networks for keywords which a statistically unusual number of users are posting and send alerts in response. I'll go out on a limb a bit here and give a more fanciful example of what software agents can be compared to, the six robots from the Infocom game Suspended. In the game, you the player are unable to act on your own because your body is locked in a cryogenic suspension tank, but the six robots (Auda, Iris, Poet, Sensa, Waldo, and Whiz) carry out orders given them, subject to their inherent limitations but are smart enough to figure out how to interpret those orders (Waldo, for example, doesn't need to be told exactly how to pick up a microsurgical arm, he just knows how to do it).

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 16 November 2015, 09:00 hours | content | No comments

Star Wars, the Force, and balance.

I've had some ideas kicking around in the back of my head for a while, in particular after finally watching the other two Star Wars prequels (I saw the first and it put me off from watching the other two for many years - ye gods...) and this article in the Huffington Post about where the next movie might be headed. I'll not cover that territory because there really isn't any reason to, but there are a few things that I've been ruminating on for a while.

First, let me state a couple of things up front: I'm not a raving Star Wars fan. There are things I enjoy much more than the Star Wars movies but I do appreciate them as science fiction. Second, I haven't seen the trailers for the next movie. I might get around to it. I'm also not versed in the Star Wars Expanded Universe - the games, the novels, the cartoons... so any of this stuff might be covered in there somewhere. I don't know. These are also my informed speculations on the matter; I don't have any kind of inside line to the Lucasfilm/Disney/whoever else empire. I'm also trying to write with nuance, so please don't treat these words as being written with a broad brush. Treat them as examples and nto as absolutes or stereotypes.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 31 October 2015, 17:45 hours | default | No comments

Direct neural interface: Hopefully coming soon to a brain near you

Direct neural interface has long been a dream and fantasy of tech geeks like myself who grew up reading science fiction. Slap an electrode net on your head (or screw a cable into an implanted jack) and there you are, controlling a computer with the same ease that you'd walk down the street or bend a paperclip with your fingers. If nothing else, those of us who battle the spectre of carpal tunnel syndrome constantly know that our careers have a shelf life, and at some point we're going to be out of action more or less permanently. So we are constantly on the lookout for ways to not wind up on permanent disability because we can't work anymore.

Or maybe you just found out way more about me than you really needed to know. Let's move along, shall we?

Bits and pieces of brain/computer interface technology have been around for years: The electroencephalogram is a non-invasive sensing technology for picking up the electrical activity of the brain, and relatively inexpensive open source eegs like the OpenBCI exist for people hacking around. Microprocessors are now fast and powerful enough to crunch EEG data in realtime for very little money and the most unusual hardware can be repurposed for getting the data into your laptop. You can purchase reusable EEG electrodes on Amazon for very little money to ensure that you get the highest quality signals (or you can make your own). TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) has been around since the mid-1990's, when only a dedicated subculture of body hackers and modification enthusiasts were winding their own electromagnets and seeing what would happen when they were placed on different areas of their skulls. But what would it take to put all of this together to transfer information from one person's brain to that of another person?

The answer is: Not much, really. A research team at the University of Washington have published the results of experments they've conducted that accomplished just that. One test subject was wired up to an EEG monitoring their cortical electrical activity; the EEG was interfaced with a computer plugged into their local area network where it transmitted the data to another computer. In another lab about a mile down the road, a second test subject with a TMS unit strapped to the back of their head that was interfaced with a second computer receiving the EEG data from the network. The TMS was positioned over the primary visual cortex. When the TMS was energized the resulting magnetic field caused phosphenes to appear in the subject's field of vision (if you want to replicate this at home, close your eyes and gently press on your eyelids; what you see are phosphenes triggered by the pressure stimulating your retinas, which send signals down your optic nerves into your visual cortices). The first test subject viewed a static image; the second test subject used some software to ask the first yes-or-no questions about the image, which was answered by thinking "Yes" or "No" very hard. The second test subject detecting a strong phosphene interpreted it as a "Yes" response. When the experiments were done, the numbers were crunched and it was found that five pairs of test subjects playing twenty games, where half were controls and half were real games showed a success rate of 72%. In a separate control group, their success rate was only 18%, which is significantly below that of the experimental group. If you've a mind to, their peer-reviewed paper is available at PLOS ONE.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 27 October 2015, 09:00 hours | default | One comment

Aftermath of the Future of Politics conference.

No notes to post, I was too busy running tech for the conference. And fighting with Skype.

The Doctor | 20 October 2015, 16:31 hours | default | No comments

Machine learning going from merely unnerving to scary.

It seems like you can't go a day with any exposure to media without hearing about machine learning, or developing software which isn't designed to do anything in particular but is capable of teaching itself to carry out tasks tasks and make educated predictions based upon its training and data already available to it. If you've ever had to deal with a speech recognition system, bought something off of Amazon that you didn't know existed (but seemed really interesting at the time), or used a search engine you've interacted with a machine learning system of some kind. That said, here's a roundup of some fascinating stuff being done with machine learning systems at this time.

First, let's talk about the chess. As board games go it's a tricky one to write software for due to the number of potential moves every turn. Pretty much every chess engine out there, from IBM's Deep Blue to Colossus Chess back in 1984 use more or less the same general technique, which is brute forcing the set of all possible moves for that board configuration, deleting the moves that obviously won't work (i.e., illegal moves) with varying degrees of cleverness, and winnowing down the remaining possible positions to extract the best possible move for that moment. Well engineered systems can run several hundred million possible moves in a few seconds before settling on a move; conversely, human chess players are observed using the fusiform face areas of their brains to evaluate five or six moves per second before picking a move, which is obviously much slower but history has borne out just how efficient a means of playing chess wetware is. Enter Giraffe by Matthew Lai at the Imperial College of London. Giraffe is implemented as a very sophisticated machine learning system which makes use of multiple layers of neural networks, each of which analyzes chess boards in a different way. One layer looks at the state of the game board as a whole, another analyzes the location of each piece relative to others on the board, and another considers the squares each piece can move to as well as the game effects of each possible move. Giraffe started out knowing nothing about the game of chess becasue it was an unformatted, unprogrammed neural network construct. Lai then began feeding into Giraffe carefully selected parts of databases of chess games, where each game is documented move-by-move and annotated every step of the way. This is, incidentally, the important bit about training AI software. Whatever data sets you train them with have to be annotated in some natively machine readable way so that the software has a "native language" to attach ideas to, just as you or I would think in our native languages and mentally translate into a second language learned later in life. All told, it took Giraffe about 72 hours continously to assimilate the information needed to play chess. At the end of the traning process Giraffe was benchmarked against human chess players, and it was discovered that Giraffe ranks as a FIDE International Chess Master. If you're curious, here's the paper Lai wrote about building and training Giraffe.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 13 October 2015, 08:30 hours | default | One comment

I am now obligated to say something.

Readers of my site or social aquaintenances may be aware of independent presidential candidate and outspoken transhumanist Mr. Zoltan Istvan, who is at this time on the campaign trail. More specifically Zoltan is one of the residents of the Immortality Bus which is driving across the country to raise awareness of death and why time and funds must be allocated to study cures for aging and decrepitude in the human animal. Zoltan Istvan seems, in the times I've spoken with him on a casual basis a reasonably decent, intelligent, and well read person. He is a very successful and ambitious person, and I will not take that away from him.

However, Zoltan is working hard to promulgate an us-versus-them mentality among the people he is interacting with. Either you're with him and working to overcome death, or you're against him (in his parlance, a "deathist"). He's calling out moderate voices in the community - people who are hard at work in the lab or at the bench and not talking, people who have nuance in their worldviews, and people who have called him out for trolling (such as was done outside of churches in the Deep South some weeks back).

I cannot, in good conscience, back him any longer.

There are as many avenues to personally directed evolution and potentially transcendence as there are members of the transhumanist community. Our strength is in our diversity of viewpoints, our works, and our willingness to collaborate so that all of us benefit, not in rhetoric which makes us look like a bunch of extremists. It's hard enough being taken seriously when you say you build prosthetic limbs in your workshop, and telling people that they're on the side of death if they won't listen to you isn't helping any.

Zoltan, there is no reason that you should read these words, but just the same: I have a great deal of respect for you, and I do not think ill of you. I'd love to hang out and talk shop over coffee with you the next time in you're the area. But you're going about this the wrong way.

Here is the official word of the Transhumanist Party, the words of which I happen to endorse even though I have elected to not join the organization.

The Doctor | 12 October 2015, 18:28 hours | default | One comment

I'm not about to break a streak.

It's getting near the end of September and I haven't posted anything yet this month. What's going on?

Rather a lot, actually.

I've taken on a significant amount of responsibility at my day job this year, and sometimes that means putting in long hours. Long enough hours that, if I don't faceplant shortly after arriving at home I'm awake for only an hour or two afterward, and the last thing I want to lay eyes on is a keyboard. I usually study during that time before crashing for the next day. Yes, this means that I'm at the point in my career where racking up certifications is now a requirement, and not merely an idea to entertain and then set aside for later. This is not terribly conducive to blogging, as one would guess.

I've also been putting in a fair amount of time working on a couple of conferences, both organizing and preparing papers for. Organizing a conference seems so easy when all your're doing is preparing and practicing a presentation, and maybe running your paper past someone for a final look-see before it goes live. But when it comes to getting everyone to send their presentations to you in a timely manner for testing, getting a laptop and projector, figuring out lunch for all the attendees... it's a lot of work.

I have a fairly large queue of stuff I want to write about, probably fifteen or twenty long-form posts worth. If and when things calm down somewhat (and assuming that my body's immune system doesn't segfault on me) I'll try to get to work on them.

The Doctor | 27 September 2015, 16:57 hours | default | No comments

UPDATED: I'll be presenting at the Future of Politics Conference.

EDIT: While I will be attendence at this conference, I am no longer in the lineup of speakers.

On 18 October 2015 I'll be presenting at the Future of Politics Conference held by the Brighter Brains Institute. I'll be giving a talk (which doesn't have a title yet, and in fact I have yet to start writing) on tools and strategies for grassroots organization in a time when we're all connected on a 24x7x365 basis (which is to say, today).

The conference will be held at the Humanist Hall in Oakland, CA from 10:30am until 6:00pm. Lunch will be served. Tickets are available through Eventbrite.

The Doctor | 25 August 2015, 12:27 hours | default | No comments

DefCon 23: Presentation notes

Here and behind the cut are the notes I took at DefCon 23. They are necessarily incomplete because they're notes, and I refer you to the speakers' presentations and eventually video recordings for the whole story.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 20 August 2015, 09:00 hours | default | No comments

DefCon 23: The Writeup

Well, I'm back from DefCon in sunny and hot Las Vegas, Nevada and more or less reinserted back into my everyday life. I'm just about caught up on everything that happened at work and finally finished the notes that are going to comprise this article. I'll type up the notes I took during the talks at DefCon in a couple of days; they've voluminous and I want to get the experience out of my head and into external storage before the memories fade much more. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to any of the villages so I don't have anything from those. I'm told that at least a few of the village talks were recorded and will be posted to the DefCon Media Server in a month or two.

My flight to DefCon was pretty standard, I caught my first flight to Los Angeles and got to my connecting flight just as it started boarding. An hour later I was on the ground at McKarren, found my luggage on the carrol, took the 104 degree Fahrenheit sledgehammer to the face that is Las Vegas in the afternoon, and caught a shuttle bus to the hotel. Unfortunately I'd arrived too late for DefCon's opening ceremonies or Thursday's presentations so my plans consisted of meeting up with everybody and figuring out what to do next. I wasn't able to check into my hotel because Genetik was at dinner with the keycards and Seele hadn't landed yet. Rather than get stuck in a pickle I caught the Vegas Monorail to Bally's and then stumbled around for most of an hour in the thing-that-pretends-to-be-the-city-of-Paris trying to find the restaurant everybody was at. Even enlisting help from other congoers didn't help because we were all equally lost. It was a stroke of luck that I found everybody when I did, though I'll admit that low blood sugar didn't help. The late afternoon was spent catching up with Vlad, Sam, and Genetik, whom I haven't seen in quite a few years. Seele joined up with us later after her flight touched down. Dinner out of the way we headed for DefCon proper to pay admission on the theory that the line was still unreasonably long. Last year, I stood in line for several hours before finally getting a badge but this year a combination of new attendee badging tactics and the late hour resulted in getting into DefCon in less than ten minutes, most of that walking from the restaurant to the front desk.

I then received a phone call from some of my cow-orkers who were attending DefCon with me - they ran into problems checking in, and was there anything I could do to help? As it turned out there was a mixup with the length of the room reservation and some coaxing of the front desk (coupled with the judicious use of a fax machine (surprisingly, people still use those)) got them their room keys and into their room with a minimum of trouble. Some time was spent on hold and a little explanation later, and all appeared to be well with the world. All of us met up once again for a late night snack because most of us were still not quite ready for bed (or fueled up from the flight) and then turned in for the evening.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 17 August 2015, 09:00 hours | default | No comments

Back from DefCon 23.

Back from DefCon 23 in Las Vegas, NV. It'll take me a couple of days to do my usual writeup and then put my notes online.

I'm alive. Sit tight.

The Doctor | 10 August 2015, 23:29 hours | default | No comments

Fabbing components, parallel processing with rats, and synthetic neurons.

Life being what it is these days, I haven't had much time to write any real posts here. If I'm not working I'm at home studying because I'm back on the "get letters after my name" trail, and if I'm not studying or in class I'm helping get family moved out and set up on the west coast. Or I'm at the gym because I'm fighting alongside my essential vanity by trying to lose weight; people tell me that I look good these days but there's a fine line between looking healthy and needing new clothes. So there you have it, from the depths of my psyche just above some of the interfaces.

I do have one or two interesting things in the pipeline that I need to write about - in fact, they're going to be submitted to a couple of conferences if all goes according to plan. But I think I'd better get the conference papers written first because you never can tell if the organizers will pitch a fit (or threaten legal action - they're being held in the US, after all) if you blog about something you're going to present. But enough about that.

Some years ago, after the field of 3D printing really took off, a number of hackers began working on the problem of fabricating circuit boards with 3D printers instead of going through the process of laying out and etching circuit boards with chemical processes that are often nasty and messy. But then the question of acquiring components comes up - Radio Shack is as dead as Walt Disney so it's not as if you can jander down to the strip mall and pick up the parts you need anymore (mostly - some Micro Center outlets have entire sections dedicated to this sort of thing, as do Fry's outlets) if you really need something for a project and can't wait to order it online.

A couple of days ago research teams at the University of California at Berkeley and the National Chiao Tung University of Taiwan published a paper last week in Nature's open access journal Microsystems and Nanoengineering which detailed how they used a 3D printer to fabricate reasonably standard electronic components. Their 3D printer was a dual extruder model which laid down successive layers of structural plastic and sacrificial wax to form hollow spaces inside the figure that were later cleaned out to make room for multiple injections of silver paste which formed the conducting portions of the components. The hollow spaces were engineered to have certain electrical properties so that different kinds of components could be constructed, among them inductors and resistors. From these basic components electrical circuits were constructed; as a proof of concept the research team built a "smart milk cap" which had what amounts to a simple lab-on-a-chip to keep tabs on whether or not the milk in the carton had gone bad or not by analyzing changes in the electrical properties of the milk. Data was transmitted from the smart milk cap via a passive RF transmitter that blipped out data whenever an RF probe energized it.

The size of their components? Before cleaning them up they fit comfortably on top of a penny with room to spare. The resolution of their printer (a 3D Systems ProJet HD 3000) is 30 μm or 30 millionths of a meter. This ain't your dad's breadboard.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 27 July 2015, 12:00 hours | default | No comments

Notes from the Transhuman Superpowers and Longevity Conference - 12 July 2015

And now, hopefully sooner than the last set, my notes taken during the Transhuman Superpowers and Longevity Conference held on 12 July 2015 in Oakland, CA. Everything's behind the cut, with references as applicable. Personal observations (are on separate lines in parenthesis) to differentiate them from the speaker's material.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 20 July 2015, 09:00 hours | default | One comment

Notes from the Transhuman Strategies conference, 21 March 2015

At long last, here are my notes from the Transhuman Strategies conference held by the Brighter Brains Institute on 21 March 2015. It took me a while to find the notebook I wrote them in, so that's why they're a few months late in coming. Anyway, my notes are under the cut.

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 17 July 2015, 09:00 hours | default | No comments

I am this week's special guest on the More Thank Bits! podcast.

Last week Alexius Pendragon invited me to be the special guest on the podcast he co-hosts, called More Than Bits! During the interview I fielded a bunch of questions about the RaspberryPi and my lunchtop, Squeak and Scratch, capture the flag competitions and Project 2 by, Project Byzantium, and being on the Global Frequency.

I was unfortunately ill-prepared for the interview because I ran home from work and jacked in without taking the time to get my head or my notes together, so I made quite a few gaffs. I hate it when I'm operating half in work mode and half in home mode, which messes with my memory retrieval mechanism. Truth be told I'm kind of embarassed by the mistakes I made, but that's what happens when you don't take the time to switch out of work mode. Neither am I perfect.

Here is the episode in its entirity, for listening online or download.

The Doctor | 13 July 2015, 11:47 hours | default | No comments

The OPM compromise and information dynamics.

If you pay attention to the news, you've undoubtedly heard that the US Office of Personnel Management, which coordinates the background investigations for every civil servant and contractor of the United States government was pwned so thoroughly that the intruders even got into E-QIP, the online web service that prospectives have to enter their life histories into (well, at most the last decade of it) so the process can begin. Say what you want about government, but this will probably go down as the most gigantic clusterfuck in history and it shows every sign of getting worse, not better. One of the things the US government has gotten incredibly paranoid over since 9/11 is people who aren't USians, almost unto xenophobia. So why, then, did they outsource their entire IT infrastructure management to mainland China?

I got nothin'. And that's not what I wanted to write about, actually. What I wanted to write about is how wrong-headed the idea of "Tell your security officer everything, because if somebody tries to blackmail you about it you can go to them, and they'll help."

More under the cut...

The Doctor | 06 July 2015, 09:00 hours | default | One comment

The California t-shirt conspiracy.

All of the t-shirts commonly available in California seem cut to make you feel bad about yourself. No matter your self-image, no matter your body shape or configuration, just about any t-shirt you find is going to make you feel fat. At the very least, most sizes run one size smaller (i.e., what is marked 'large' is actually cut as a 'medium', and so forth).

Upon reflection, this might be why personal exercise is so common in California.

The Doctor | 26 June 2015, 18:04 hours | randomknowledge | No comments

Pictures from the Covenant Concert, 30 April 2015.

Pictures from the Covenant show at the DNA Lounge on 30 April 2015.

The Doctor | 23 June 2015, 09:00 hours | images | No comments

Makerfaire 2015

If you've never been to Makerfaire, it's a rite of passage for geeks of all kinds. In fact, I'd recommend that everyone attend their nearest Mini-Makerfaire at least once because you'll see all manner of weird, wonderful, and inspiring things on display. I ran a table at the one in Silver Spring, Maryland back in 2013 with HacDC and had a ball. Anyway.

I had a chance to attend the original Makerfaire in the Bay Area a few weekends ago and, though it was a significant journey on BART and on a shuttle bus it was well worth it. There, I saw more kinetic art than I've seen anywhere else (most of it breathing fire), several examples of functional powered armor, TOOOL had an entire tent dedicated to locksport, there were robots running around all over the place, a massive store where the latest and greatest smart components could be bought (I didn't buy any - I don't have time right now, so there was no point), movie props... more than I can really recount here. I did take pictures of most of it, though.

Here are the pictures I took.

The Doctor | 17 June 2015, 09:30 hours | images | No comments

Experimenting with music.

When screwing around with a keyboard try using your off-hand predominently. I find that this bypasses the logical part of my brain which insists that I'm wasting my time and should do something more worthwhile.

The Doctor | 14 June 2015, 20:18 hours | randomknowledge | No comments
"We, the extraordinary, were conspiring to make the world better."