Archive for the ‘Web/Tech’ Category

There’s an interesting discussion going on at Dean’s World and ghost blog about what’s become known as the AI Friendliness problem. SF is overflowing with stories of hostile and indifferent aritficial intelligences menacing their human creators. Given that real AIs will probably be coming online within my lifetime, I’d prefer that didn’t happen. But what can we do about it? How do we ensure we build a Data, and not a Lore?

Those of you who have read much classic science fiction probably recognize this as being the same moral dilemma that motivated the creation of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In Asimov’s robot stories (well, most of them) the Three Laws are the most basic programming given any intelligent machine. In most cases, if the robot violates one of those rules it’s brain immediately burns out, and it "dies". This is obviously a very proactive approach, and I think it’s the best way to proceed. Any complex system, natural or manmade, requires failsafes to avoid disaster. Artificial intelligences are no different.


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A couple of popular conservative blogs have concluded that Google is systematically and purposefully excluding sites from their general search results based on the poilitical decisions. The Google News aggregator has always been biased and capricious, but unfiltered search results
have to be fair or they’re useless. So if it’s true then Google’s really, really stupid.

But I’m not convinced just yet. Google’s gotten some unfair political criticism lately and I suspect this may be more of the same. Sites have mysteriously vanished from Google before without any politics being involved. Check out any of the SEO forums out there for examples. I really doubt Google’s management would sanction a political purge of right-wing blogs. They may be lefties but they’re also businessmen, and well aware of how the search engine business works.

However, I wouldn’t put a stunt like this past some of their employees. Sadly, many of my fellow geeks suffer from Slashdot Socialism, which makes them notoriously soft-skulled when it comes to politics. Take a look at the popular links of the day pulled together on popurls or Technorati. Under the cool new Ajax techniques, pr0n, and gadget announcements the daily list of hot topics is practially a Daily Kos recommended reading list. A misguided and not-very-bright programmer or two could quietly do a lot of damage.

Anyway, if this turns out to be true, will it sink Google? Probably not anytime soon. Yahoo is, well, boring. Gigablast is Dean’s current favorite, and it does seem pretty nice. Windows Live is promising, and they’ve gotten Amazon’s A9 to switch. But they’re still a sucker for spam sites. They’re those stupid autogenerated pages that all have the same description "Learn more about [query]! Everything to know about [query] is here!" You’d think that removing obvious junk like that would be the first job of any search engine, but somehow only Google seems to manage it.

And the reason why (as pointed out to me by my lovely and intelligent wife) may be the same reason that Google’s getting these new blog-related complaints. They’re very aggressive at detecting and delinking many types of suspected junk sites. People make a living reverse-engineering and defeating Google’s anti-spam techniques. Without warning. Google makes a change to their algorithms, re-indexes, and the results suddenly change without any explanation. No system is perfect, though, and sometimes good, honest sites get caught up in the crossfile. And after that happens it takes forever to reach a real person and convince them to fix it. Bad customer service, yes. Conspiracy, no. I think that’s probably what’s happening here.

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Network Neutrality

The WSJ has brief debate on the topic of net neutrality. I think Craig Newmark comes out on top, but that may be because I already lean toward the Save the Internet view on this subject.

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To Google or not?

Google is taking a lot of heat over their decision to officially accept Chinese government censorship of their search results. I’ve been reluctant to criticize because I have a feeling, just a feeling, that there’s more going on here than we know.

Yes, there’s no doubt that Google, Cisco, and other American companies are complying with Chinese censorship efforts. And in China’s case those efforts may sometimes be much more dire than passively blocking web sites and hiding search results. If that’s all being done for purely reasons of profit then it’s about as amoral as you can get.

On the other hand, it could be that the Chinese are opening their gates to the biggest Trojan horse in history. Both in the ancient and modern meanings of the term. The technology infrastructure of what may be the next world superpower is being built on American technology by US companies. I’m going to go out on  a limb and suggest that US intelligence agencies are very happy about this development. What would the NSA give to monitor every search request in, say, Iran? To look over the shoulders of each government official who visits a web site? What’s the best way that they could manage that?

It’s possible – even likely – that Google, Cisco, etc, are just following the money regardless of moral questions about who they do business with. Posing as privacy advocates stateside while selling out their users offshore. However, it’s also just possible that 30 or 40 years from now when the issue is long past we’ll discover that these companies once made an amazing contribution to national security, and willingly sacrificed their public image to do it. I’m probably just imagining things, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?

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Playing with Fire(fox)

I installed Firefox 1.5 at work this afternoon. It’s nice so far, and the upgrade was much less painful than past versions. I did get one weird installer warning message complaining about some chrome option but other incompatibilities were handled smoothly. I’m hopeful that this release will fix some of the memory leaks and other nagging problems that have plagued version 1.0.

The only problem was the massive server load. While the main getfirefox.com servers seemed to be humming along just fine (good) the mozdev servers where the extensions reside were getting hammered all afternoon, making it very hard to update my extensions. You’d think they’d have anticipated that problem. Fortunately things got a little better later in the day.

There are some commenters over on Dean’s World who touch on corporate users and the potential problems with unofficial installs. I personally think that such users are usually doing the company a favor by finding problems that will have to be fixed sooner or later. But I don’t have to clean up after those users, either, so can get away with being a rebel like that. 🙂

Over at work we’re officially an IE shop, but as a web developer I have to keep a bunch of other browsers installed. Other IT folks have the same freedom. Many of us in the IT department have quietly switched our default browsers to Firefox because it’s much easier to secure and far more pleasant to use. That’s given us all an incentive to fix problems with our internal applications as we’ve encountered them. There are a few things (including Outlook Web Access) that work signifigantly better under IE but they’re the exception now, and getting fewer every day.

What the Mozilla project really needs to provide now is an easy corporate solution for standardizing Firefox installations and rolling out patches as needed. Microsoft has had that for a long time and it’s expected now from any enterprise software vendor. I suspect that this lack of professional-level administrative tools is one of the big reasons why some large companies are wary of moving away from IE.

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Adventures in Brandmarking

Tonight’s episode: The Case of the Corporate Cloned Q’s!

In which desktop design company Quark discovers why a new corporate logo formed from a single letter in an readily identifiable typeface is perhaps not as unique as they had hoped.

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People will talk

Did you know that the market for cell phones in Africa has grown from 7.5 million to 78.6 million in the last five years? That’s amazing. According to this NY Times story one out of every 11 Africans is a mobile subscribers. And many of those subscribers shares their phone (for a fee) with other non-subscribers. Whole coutries are skipping right over the expensive and difficult stage of running landlines and moving directly into wireless communications. This communication doesn’t come cheap, but the new ability to talk with anyone else instantly at far less cost than before has been a huge boost for small businesses and for individuals just living their lives. They’ve showed a lot of ingenuity.

I think this article is a perfect example of how easy it is for more developed nations to make unwarranted assumptions about what kind of technology our African brethren need to improve their lot in life. I’ve followed many discussions about African aid, and whenever computers, cell phones, GPS, and other "exotic" technologies are mentioned someone will inevitably get upset: They don’t need that stuff! Stop wasting everyone’s money and time on pointless Western conveniences.

But this is completely wrongheaded. Africans don’t need our charity – they’re as capable and as intelligent
as you and I. What they really need is the means to help themselves. That why whenever they’re actually given the chance, people in developing countries embrace technology. Yes, clean water and nutritious food are important, but human beings aren’t satisfied scraping by just with just the basic requirements of survival. They want to be able to talk to each other and go coordinate online and travel at will and all the other things that our own society takes for granted. They want to live in the 21st century with the rest of us, not in a nature preserve or a zoo.

via Samzidata

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