A Glimmer of Hope

Apparently, the trial in Dover, PA has sobered up members of a school board here in Ohio. Hopefully (and god willing (!)) this will ignite similar litigation that will finally put an end to teaching pseudoscience to impressionable young minds.

[Plain Dealer article]

Something I’ve never understood is, if creationists want biology classes to devote time to teaching intelligent design, then why don’t churches agree to devote some of their time to preaching evolutionary theory?

Evolving Straight Into the 15th Century!

The Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, a leading proponent of the “intelligent design” movement, and the star witness in the developing case against the school board of Dover, PA, would have us believe that the currently accepted definition of “science” is flawed and needs revision. No doubt, this is because the inconvenient definition of “science” categorically rules out so-called Intelligent Design as a viable scientific theory.

The United States National Academy of Sciences defines a scientific theory as:

…a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

Since Intelligent Design does not deal in facts, laws, and provides no hypotheses to test, even Behe agrees that it’s not a scientific theory under this definition.

Behe instead proposes to think outside the box of 21st century science, and relax the definition a bit, to the effect of:

Under my definition, scientific theory is a proposed explanation which points to physical data and logical inferences.

The “logical inference” of Intelligent Design is essentially, “It looks complex, therefore it must be designed.” Unfortunately, neither Behe nor any of his ID colleagues have defined what is meant by “looks complex,” and all instances of “irreducible complexity” presented by ID proponents can be explained by modern evolutionary theory.

Under Behe’s definition, astrology would also be considered a science. Behe actually agreed with this when asked by the plaintiff’s attorney Eric Rothschild.

Proponents of Intelligent Design swear and cross their heart (pun intended) that their hypothesis bears no religious implications. With that in mind, I wonder what a high-school class on Intelligent Design would consist of:

TEACHER: Darwinian evolution does not explain the complexity and diversity of today’s species. An alternative is that an “Intelligent Designer” created everything we see today. Conveniently enough, the book of Genesis provides just such an explanation. Let’s begin our reading.

The day we accept miracles as scientific explanations is the day we revert to 15th century science. Hopefully the trial in Dover, PA will make a strong stand against such foolishness. The only miracle here is that Mr. Behe was ever allowed to teach a college Biology class.

Even the Christian Science Monitor makes the following refreshing and enlightened statement:

If this case encourages a deeper pondering of God, that’s welcome. One could even argue that intelligent design, as a widely accepted concept, should go much further, seeking to scientifically explore mankind’s spiritual nature rather than the origins of matter. But such exploration is a personal one, not appropriate for a public classroom. [emphasis added]

Sure-fire Ways to Annoy Me

1. When waiting for the elevator, come up and press the button when it’s already lit up. Don’t trust me or anyone else to press the button correctly.

2. Inside the elevator, make sure to press the “Close Door” button repeatedly on every floor at which the elevator stops.

3. At the crosswalk, press the button at least ten times. Obviously, the more you press the button, the faster you’ll get a green light.

Loebner Prize misguided?

In one of Alan Turing’s most noted papers, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), Turing describes a test for machine intelligence, where a human “judge” would attempt to hold a conversation with two consoles, one operated by a human, and the other by a machine (with the judge unaware which is which). If, throughout the conversation, the judge cannot distinguish between the human and the machine, then the machine can be considered intelligent. Although it seems simplistic and rudimentary, this test can be quite useful since it circumvents any requirement to define or quantify “intelligence” or any aspects of it. It simply assumes that humans are intelligent, and if a machine can simulate human responses, then it must also be equally intelligent.

The first formal implementation of the Turing Test was organized in 1991 by Dr. Hugh Loebner, a somewhat eccentric academic figure who is also an activist for the decriminalization of prostitution. Dr. Loebner has been conducting this competition every year, ever since. The home page of the Loebner Prize contains transcripts of the conversations held between the judges and the various finalist programs.

Maybe it’s because I’m looking at the transcripts through the eyes of a software engineer, but I found the programs’ responses laughably crude and robotic. I fail to see how any human judge could attribute any “human” qualities to the programs’ output. It is trivial to observe how the programs randomly regurgitate a block of words spoken by the human, or, when asked a question they weren’t programmed to answer, spout off a random cliche to divert the judge’s attention from the program’s incompleteness.

Upon examining the transcripts from the earlier years of the competition (around 1994), and comparing them to the latest results (2004), something even more disturbing becomes clear: the sophistication of these programs has not changed a single bit! Of course, some will say, the programs have gotten more sophisticated internally, perhaps with a bigger repository of vocabulary. However, conversationally, they are virtually no different than the very first ELIZA implementation.

It seems to me that this kind of competition has more to do with behavioral psychology than computer science. It is, as some have called it, a beauty contest. In essence, the Loebner Prize would be awarded to the program that can do the best job of fooling a person into believing that it’s human, which, apparently, isn’t too difficult. This leads me to conclude that the Loebner competition, perhaps even the Turing test, is misguided at best. Since when does machine intelligence have to be expressed in the form of human conversation? If we are to expect a machine to sound remotely human, we would need to supply it with all of the life experiences of a human being, complete with sensory data (images, sounds, smells), memories from childhood, and fundamental instincts like self-preservation, the desire to learn, and the need to socialize.

In short, for a machine to become intelligent in the human sense, it would need to lead a human life from its conception. An example of such a machine may be an android that is perfectly disguised as a human being and made to interact with humans. It would be even better if the android itself is made to believe that it is human.
But to expect a computer console application (no matter how complex), without any real sensory input except keyboard clicks, to ever respond like a human being is misguided indeed.