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Why is there no seminar on the most important thought experiments? If there is (ideally, at EPFL) then please tell me.

I had to live 29.5 years to first encounter the “Chinese room” (while reading The Emperor’s New Mind). It is by far the most inspiring thought experiment concerning the issue of mind, machines and consciousness that I’ve ever heard of.

If (i) you don’t know what it is and (ii) like to think about questions such as how consciousness arises from mindless cells and if machines will ever be “intelligent” in the sense of a human, then I very strongly advise you to read at least the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article.

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Why doesn’t one hear constantly about virtual impostors? What I mean is this:

Suppose somebody without a strong “web presence” and without his/her own homepage really pisses me off. [I usually don’t get mad, but let’s suppose nevertheless.] Then it would be extremely easy for me (and for any other computer geek) to create a fake homepage for this person and to make sure that this homepage is found on Google when searching for that person’s name. Now on this homepage one could put some, for example, links to gay porn sites under the header “My favorite sites”. [For some reason most people would feel insulted, if you consider them to be homosexual, which I personally find extremely silly.]

If this is well done, it might not be immediately obvious that this homepage is not “endorsed” by this person. [Just as neither this nor this page is endorsed by the White House.] Such a page could cause a serious damage to the reputation of this person.

Why does this not happen all the time? Or does this happen constantly on a large scale (… I don’t mean a dozen of cases per year …) and I’m just not aware of it?

Only once or twice per year I hear about cases where somebody (usually somebody’s ex-boyfriend) posts somebody’s (usually somebody’s ex-girlfriend’s) private telephone number, email address and address in a rather “dubious” forum/chat room, along with the offer of various free services. But this kind of evil “revenge” would be even harder to track, if you just go to some random internet cafe or use some software to anonymize your IP address while pulling this “prank“.

So either computer geeks are simply too nice and/or grown-up, or people are actually not as vengeful as one might think … or maybe just not creative enough.

PS: This post is a great test for the comment spam filter, as undoubtedly there will be lots of automated spam comments, given some words used in the text.

A Kodak Ex-1011 digital picture frame with Wifi.

Pictures are uploaded by family members, automatically downloaded from a website and the proud owner doesn’t even need to know what the internet is.

If you’re using Mozilla Thunderbird to read your email, then have a look at a new extension: EagleEye

It allows you to re-discover old friends (= people with a private email address to whom you haven’t written for several months) or keep track of your TODOs (= people with a professional email address where the last email was sent by the other person and not by you, so that you should probably reply).  And MUCH more.

I still find it slightly puzzling that during the winter there’s only a few millimeters/centimeters of ice on a lake, but not more.

I simply find it interesting how little heat is lost between the ice and the (liquid) water. Maybe I should sit down some afternoon, look up all the relevant constants and compute the actual heat transfer rate to figure out, after how many weeks/months/years with an air temperature of -5° a “standard” lake would turn into a solid block of ice.

Of course, if the water was constantly being “stirred” (as is the case in most rivers), then the temperature distribution in the lake would be more even and it would take much longer to freeze over, but when it does it should probably turn into a single block of solid ice pretty much instantly. (It might also be fun to figure out, how much of the kinetic energy of the river is turned into heat. If it wasn’t for this dissipation the river would accelerate more and more towards the sea and would flow into the sea at a velocity of several hundred kilometers per hour.)

(If you don’t know this quote.)

Who should a defense talk be given for?

For the reviewers of your thesis (who have read the thesis in detail anyways)?

For the chair of the committee (you usually does not read your thesis in advance)?

For your colleagues (who will at least share some common background knowledge with you)?

Or for your family (you might share the last name with you but probably not a lot of knowledge about your research subject)?

Ultimately, it depends on your own goals and also on the committee members. Still, if somebody asked me for advice on this topic now I’d tell him (from my own experience) that the talk should not be “too accessible” (as was the case for me). At least in the last 10 minutes or so just loose the rest of the crowd, throw in some proofs, go into depth, show off a bit.

In the end, this issue is probably not too crucial though as the grade of your thesis (… in Germany you get a grade for your thesis …) is hardly ever affected by the presentation you give (at least in the domain of computer science). So I’m still glad that I got positive feedback from friends and colleagues outside the domain of information retrieval, even if the “shallowness” of the presentation then motivated the referees to ask some questions which were not directly related to the main contributions of the dissertation. So at least the defense really deserved the name of (self-) defense at the end.

That’s one of the questions about consciousness discussed in Gödel, Escher, Bach. I agree with the author that the answer is “yes” but I think this is kind of the wrong question to ask and not a good test for consciousness.

I personally believe that the ability to recognize beauty is nothing INNATE (???!), but something we learn, something we are taught. If you grew up believing that the sunset crimsons the horizon, it means that the source of all life demands the sacrifice of human blood, you would probably no longer view the sunset as being beautiful. I also believe that not only the recognition of beauty but also the appreciation of beauty is something we are taught. Of course, here it is more difficult to define, what it would mean for a computer to “appreciate” a nice .jpg file, as this would essentially involve a definition of a “feeling”. But maybe a “feeling” can somehow be defined as a different operational mode. I.e., that a feeling defines certain
rational/computational paradigms according to which our brain operates.
A somewhat related thought: One of the best tests for true artificial intelligence that I’ve heard of is the following:
Ask a computer to explain a joke to you.
But even this might not be the ultimate test as (i) for some jokes even humans have problems, and (ii) with some simple rules/heuristics you can probably “teach” a computer (at least conceptually) to explain simple jokes (involving blondes etc.). Recognition of irony might be more difficult. But, again, here also humans fail regularly. The good old Turing Test would probably be passed by some simple programs (along the lines of Eliza) if the other person involved in the conversation is not used to dealing with computers and/or having non-standard conversations. [E.g., the program could use simple “escape phrases” when it is not sure, what to answer, such as “I’m really not in the mood to discuss this kind of topic.” or the more Eliza-like “Why do you ask this?”]

Anyways, endless topic. Still always interesting to think about, what actually defines a conscious mind, what is needed for self-awareness and whether our kind of intelligence
is really qualitatively different from that of, say, apes. (Of course, we’re smarter but are we more than just “clever apes”? Is the fact that they can recognize their mirror image not sufficient to prove that they have a [low] level of self-awareness?)

Enough random nonsense.

I love her. She’s beautiful. The size is just perfect. Pretty slim. But she lacks (i) a QWERTY keyboard, (ii) a touchscreen and (iii) a higher resolution (640×480) display.

Still, my new Nokia N95 is really growing on me. Nice 5Megapixel camera and a built-in GPS receiver. That alone is enough to conquer my heart.

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