Posts Tagged ‘JON ALPERT’

Letter From New York 01 28 15 Pondering Artificial Intelligence

January 28, 2015

Heading down to New York, the train is running alongside the Hudson River, a sheet of white as yesterday’s snow accumulated on the river’s ice. The sun gleams down, reflecting enough that it causes eyes to squint when looking out. It is a scene of rough beauty.

In the city tonight, there will be a reunion of several of us who worked on some programs together for the Discovery Times Channel during its brief and glorious moment. Two of the people, Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, have gone on to be nominated twice for Academy Awards for their documentaries. Diana Sperrazza is still at Discovery, working as an Executive Producer for the Investigation Discovery Channel.

We don’t get together often so this is a special occasion.

I will slip into the city today and will probably head home tomorrow or at the latest early Friday.

Traversing south I am passing the mightiness that is West Point, a severe redoubt on the opposite bank. It is hard to be tired of this ride, one of the most beautiful in America according to most who categorize such things.

Along with the NY Times, I often check out the stories on my phone’s BBC app, an interesting re-cap of news with a British perspective. The story I found this morning most interesting was one that was headlined: AI will not kill us, says Microsoft.

How can one resist that kind of headline?

I couldn’t.

Eric Horovitz, Microsoft’s Research Chief, has an opinion markedly in contrast with some others, including physicist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk, both of who are warning that Artificial Intelligence could supersede us and destroy us. Hawking has said that AI could “spell the end of the human race.” Musk has put up ten million dollars to prevent it from happening.

We are experiencing this first wave of artificial intelligence in things such as Siri, the voice-activated assistant on our iPhones or Contana on Windows Phones, which will be integrated into the next version of the Windows OS. There is a little device from Amazon called the Echo, which comes equipped with Alexa. She is the subject of an article in today’s USA Today, outlining her benefits and her limitations.

My friends, Lionel and Pierre, have an Echo and I’ve been getting to know Alexa the last couple of weeks. She’s very friendly. Her voice is silkier than Siri and she plays music well. She answers basic questions but you can’t have a conversation with her the way one could with Data, the humanoid robot of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But you can sense it’s coming.

It’s both exciting and a little eerie. We are getting tastes of things that will come. And come they will. Because we can make them happen, we will make them happen. One day we’ll be having a conversation with Alexa’s descendants and the next they may be plotting to rid the planet of the messiness of humans. People like Horovitz suspect that one-day machines will be self-aware and where will we be then?

Back to Stephen Hawking, who has said, “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” That’s a sobering thought: being superseded. Elon Musk thinks, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” Ouch!

Mephistopheles, get away!

According to the BBC, Sir Clive Sinclair, inventor of the Spectrum Computer, believes it is unavoidable that artificial intelligences will wipe out mankind. Double ouch!

But can AI appreciate the wonders of a ride down the Hudson River the way I can? We don’t know that yet. If they become self-aware, perhaps they will.

Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov had his robots built with three unbreakable rules. “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”

I wonder if those who are developing AI have thought about including The Three Laws into their work? Might be a safeguard from The Terminator.

Letter From New York September 16, 2014

September 16, 2014

Or, as it seems to me…

As I begin to write this, it is a quiet night. I am sitting in the kitchen of my friends Dawn and Gail’s home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They are out with friends and I am sitting putting together my thoughts about the past week.

It was another anniversary of 9/11, the 13th. There was for me a certain symmetry to this one. On September 10th, 2001 I spent the evening with Jon Alpert, the visionary filmmaker, at a screening of a film he had done about the election in New York that was about to happen, Mark Green versus the billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

An early review of the film said that it would topple Bloomberg’s chances of winning the election. Mike Bloomberg came across as arrogant, privileged, ill-mannered, capricious and not a good candidate for Mayor. But then 9/11 happened and the world changed and a billionaire businessman seemed the best person to take over a city that was reeling from a great catastrophe. And, it turned out, he wasn’t a bad mayor. He may have been capricious, ill-mannered, arrogant and privileged but he brought the city back from the brink and carried it through the dark days of 2001 and 2002 when the city was so wounded it didn’t understand how it would survive its pain.

So on September 10th, 2014, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11 I found myself back in the company of Jon Alpert. He and I had dinner with our mutual friend Diana Sperazza, currently an Executive Producer for Investigation Discovery. Before that, she had been at Discovery Times Network and had been the EP on a project we had done ten years ago, OFF TO WAR.

We laughed and reminisced and talked about 9/11, 2001. Diana had been living in Washington. I had been in New York. Jon had been in New York, too. Filmmaker that he is, he grabbed a camera and headed towards the catastrophe and caught poignant images of that day. He had marched from his organization’s headquarters in the oldest firehouse in New York, mere blocks from Ground Zero and managed to get past the barricades. His footage ended up in an HBO special.

The weather has been eerily like that surrounding 9/11. Beautiful, sun kissed days. All summer I have thought about how like that time this summer has been and have had an uneasy feeling. 9/11 in New York was the most beautiful day and we have had the most beautiful summer. Some part of me has lived in fear that some terrible event would befall us this beautiful summer.

We made it through. There was no repeat of 9/11. No mass terrorist event.

But we now live in a world that is the child of that day. Since then, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and made a bloody mess of them. ISIS has just killed yet another Western hostage. The Caliphate rises; Arab states want to stop them but are tepid in their support of our desire to stop them. Various terrorist groups now seem to be starting to cooperate, lending their “expertise” to each other. Beheadings are becoming a trend. Egyptian terrorists have started using the gruesome practice in hopes of getting as much attention as ISIS or ISIL or IS, whatever they are being called.

The world feels like a more dangerous place these days. Our outrage against beheadings doesn’t stop them. Sanctions haven’t tempered Mr. Putin’s expansionist tendencies. And our response to Ebola has been slow and strangely muted.

A strange exhaustion has fallen upon us. Everyone seems tired on all sides of the political equation. Boehner seems reading a script as opposed to acting from conviction. One pundit described Obama as a bird in gilded cage, waiting to be let out. Like many Presidents, the office is aging him rapidly.

So we go on, living our lives as best we can while the world seems whirling out of control. Here at home our infrastructure is decaying as we fight wars to keep the barbarians from the gates.