Showing posts from June, 2006

The information is in the eye of the beholder

Nanotechnologies and biotechnologies are not merely re-engineering but actually re-ontologizing our world. Re-ontologizing is a neologism that I have recently introduced in order to refer to a very radical form of re-engineering, one that not only designs, constructs or structures a system (e.g. a company, or a machine) anew, but that fundamentally transforms its intrinsic nature. A good example is provided by the picture you see in this blog, discovered by Wired (click on it to se the details). Do not rush to the shop yet, these contact lenses do not exist. But they might soon become available, thanks to some bio-nano-high-tech. Once you start wearing them, you could access all sort of information not with but in your eyes. Exams? Tests? Quiz? Technical references in extreme or uncomfortable conditions? Navigation? Wikipedia? All a matter of a blink of an eye. What sort of hacking and digital vandalism will these re-ontologizing technologies make possible? In the case of your le

Agents and Their Optimal Thresholds

How should the next generation of the Web (or Web2) develop? Some talks of semantic capacities, some others of ontologies, many of agents able to manage one or the other. The truth is that there is no much difference, since any semantics available and usable by the sort of artificial agents we can actually engineer is really a matter of ontology, i.e. of producing huge, machine-readable catalogues and inventories of the environment in which they operate, and of the "furniture" of such environments that they need to handle and interact with. The hope is that agents may autonomously aggregate into societies that can, as macro-agents, combine their individual functions to perform increasingly complex and demanding tasks, in view of more ambitious goals. It is not easy. On the one hand, coarse ontologies are more easily implementable but less useful. On the other hand, the more useful ontologies are those that are finely grained, but then these are the most difficult to manag

Fourth European Conference on Computing and Philosophy

Is there life after ECAP? Yes, because there is always another CAP to go to next. This year, the European Conference on Computing and Philosophy was in Trondheim, a splendid town in Norway and a great university. The program was rich, challenging and contained a major novelty wrt previous editions: a substantial track on the philosophy of computer science. We had three keynote speakers, all very well-chosen. The first day, Raymond Turner forced us to think seriously about the conceptual foundations not only of computing but of that peculiar science and art that is informatics or computer science. He opened up a Pandora box in which we had to look sooner or later. The second day, Lucas Introna gave an interesting talk that provided an overview of his position in computer ethics. I was grateful to Lucas, for I lacked this synthesis. The closing day, Vincent Hendricks managed to pack so much into his lecture that we all felt we had been exposed to a mini-course instead. Technicall

Three mathematical fictions for the summer

Ready to travel? Eager to have a break? Are you packing all the notes to write, finally, all those papers that you've been drafting for months? Anxious to climb the hill made by the books and articles that you still haven't read? If you need some rest this summer, but you also wish to keep the brain warm and running between one academic project and the other, here are three mathematically-minded books I would strongly recommend. Trust me, you'll love them. The Oxford Murders , by Guillermo Martinez. If you've ever lived in Oxford, you will find it remarkably accurate... (thanks Jeff!) The Parrot's Theorem , by Denis Guedj . Uncle Petro and Goldbach's Conjecture : A Novel of Mathematical Obsession , by Apostolos Doxiadis . All of a sudden, those long, commuting journeys on a plane look like as many reading opportunities. PS the authors are all mathematically/scientifically very proficient. So you won't find any sloppy stuff as in Dan Brown's. They

Where are we in the philosophy of information? the Bergen podcast

Many thanks to Sverre Helge Bolstad and Johannes Ringheim for the following material, which I cut and paste here: 21.06.06, University of Bergen, Norway Luciano Floridi: "Where are we in the philosophy of information?" (Part I, introduction to PI) Luciano Floridi, University of Oxford, is a philosopher and has worked with the concept of information and philosophical questions connected to information technology in several books and articles. He is a pioneer in the field and has, through his activities, contributed greatly to defining the field of philosophy of information (PI). Luciano Floridi has written the book Philosophy and Computing (1999) and he is the editor of The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information (2004). In this podcast from a seminar at the University of Bergen he talks about the foundations of the philosophy of informationt and what PI is, and why we need it in a "databased" society. He talks about dimensions of infor

Talks and Workshops

June, the month when academics migrate (I'm posting this blog from Bergen, in Norway, when I've been invited to give a seminar on the foundations of the philosophy of information). The invited talk I gave in Siena made me realise (thanks to Claudio Pizzi!), that we might have some Quinean doubts about second order logic and modal logics in general, but we actually lack a theory of second order probability, let alone a philosophical justification for it. This is odd (sorry for the pun). Imagine: if you have a fair coin, the probability (P) that, when tossed, it will turn out to be head (h) is 0.5, obviously. So P(h) = 1/2 or 0.5. But what is the probability of this probability, i.e. P(P(h))? Does it even make sense to ask the question? If you think it does not, consider the following case: what is the probability (P1) that Othello (o) knows (K) the probability (P2) that Desdemona (d) might be unfaithful (U)? That is: P1(KoP2(Ua))? Some people think that the two Ps are not refer

Ethical robots?

The last issue of the Economist contains a special report (their usual Technological Quarterly, "Trust me, I'm a robot", June 8th 2006) mainly dedicated to ethical issues in robotics. It is a very interesting reading, and I suggest you don't miss it. However, going through the pages, a sense of disappointment slowly sinks in. There is no ethics in the sense in which a philosopher would use this word. Or rather, all the ethics that is discussed is largely related to safety issues, legal responsibilities and sex (there is a bit about sex dolls and whether robosex machines looking like children should be allowed; but the whole problem of whether synthetic pornography is immoral anymore - no real people but the users are involved - is entirely missed). Which is not to say that these issues aren't relevant or significant. Indeed, it is probably one of the best ways to make sure that people understand the (increasingly) pressing nature of some of the moral questions

Agents and their social life

"If computers could create a society, what kind of world would they make? Thanks to the work of an ambitious project that adds a whole new meaning to the phrase, "‘computer society"’, in which millions of software agents will potentially evolve their own culture, we could be about to find out. With funding from the European Commission's 'Future and Emerging Technologies' (FET) initiative of the IST programme, five European research institutes are collaborating on the NEW TIES project to create a thoroughly 21st-century brave new world -– one populated by randomly generated software beings, capable of developing their own language and culture." (read more by clicking on the titlte of the blog). Imagine a vertical line. At the bottom, some very elementary agents, simple tasks, unsophisticated lives, blind mechanisms of sort. But they get together, and a level up in our vertical line, the next family of agents are just a bit less elementary, their tasks a

Artificial Life Live

The Alife X conference took place on June 3-7, 2006. I gave a talk on the future impact of ICT , in the context of the workshop on Ethical Agents. Amid discussions and disagreements, we all converged on the view that the issues raised by artificial agents and their (ethical?) behavior will become increasingly pressing in the near future. Not least, I would like to add, because we are becoming more and more hybrid agents (or inforgs), who will perceive less and less any threshold between the world online and the world offline. A wonderful and most interesting addition to the conference was the Res-Art: Robotics and Emergent Systems exhibit. Four pieces were outstanding, and, as it happens, accidentally, they represent the four elements: 1) (Water) Christy Georg , Attainment (I thought, before checking on the web, that it was something new, but it seems to be dated to 2002) . Philosophy of information (PI) take: there is an equilibrium that the artist may propose, or rather may

Information to rescue information

There is this funny thing about information: that it can work on itself. Nails do not hammer nails, tables cannot build themselves, lamps don't "lamp", glasses don't glass and in general things don't "thing", but information informs. So information can both harm and heal itself. The latest example is provided by the application of advanced digital information techniques (multi-spectral digital analysis to create enhanced pictures) to the oldest European manuscript, the Derveni papyrus . I just cut and paste here some essential information. The Derveni papyrus is the burnt remains of a scroll buried with an ancient Greek nobleman. It dates to around 340 B.C., during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. It contains a philosophical treatise on Orpheus, probably written by somebody from the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras (a philosopher who might have been Socrates' teacher and who was accused of atheism). Discovered in

Jobs for philosophers in the US Army?

"New 'Iraq massacre' tape emerges . The BBC obtains new video evidence that US troops may have deliberately killed 11 Iraqi civilians in March." ( Thursday, 1 June 2006, 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK ) War is one of the things that best distingushes homo sapiens from other animal species. It might not be too obvious, if fought with stones and sticks. But once weapons finally become available and religion kicks in, Darwin Test is over: you know which agent belongs to our species by just looking at the puking amount of destruction and pain that he can violently and gratuitously inflict onto others. Not so for the Turing Test . Perhaps a robot could not easily fool you into thinking that he is a warrior; but the warrior may certainly be indistinguishable from an automata. Or at least that's what the army would like him to be. I know. I was an automata myself for a full year. Automata are trained not to think. So war, which is so quintessentially human, is unf

Digital interactions

We often live in the past; that's why, in a sense that I dislike, it's good for humanity to have a constant, generational turnover (read: dying). Consider the way we conceptualise how things (including ourselves) are related. So often, we catch ourselves speaking in terms of action and reaction; A does this, so B does that; cause and effect; huge mechanical gears, that rustily and noisily move the machine of our lives. We should know better. The ball does not hit the other ball, but there is a dynamic system in which two balls interact. Does the stone shatter the window, or is the glass of the window too fragile to withstand the impact of the stone? The cause precedes the effect, but there are feedbacks and balances. Things or, better, events, do not act on each other, they interact, dynamically, systemically, probabilistically, subtly. That we need to abstract some laws and regularities to make sense of this magma that's Being it's a necessity, not an option. Subtle bu