Monthly Archives: April 2013

How to Write a Really Bad Program

(A case study in bad and good algorithm design.  Hopefully, a bit of fun for anyone in a programming frame of mind, but also serving as a useful reference for the ‘Are There Any Hard Problems?’ post that follows.)

In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia‘ (Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891), Holmes and Watson discuss the difference between seeing and observing“You see, but you do not observe [Watson]. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”  “Frequently.”  “How often?”  “Well, some hundreds of times.”  “Then how many are there?”  “How many? I don’t know.”  “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

Who knows; perhaps, if they hadn’t moved on to discuss more pressing issues (that King of Bohemia has a lot to answer for), Holmes may have set Watson something a little more interesting:  “How many of these steps do you generally take in a single stride, Watson?”  “I suppose one or two, Holmes, it varies; never three. Sometimes I take different combinations of one and two steps as the mood takes me”  “Excellent, Watson; another challenge! So, taking these steps one or two at a time, in any combination you wish, how many different ways are there of climbing the seventeen steps?”  “Well, I’m quite sure I don’t know, Holmes; rather a lot, I would imagine!” Continue reading

Dawn of the Intelligent Machines?

(The second of two posts distilled from a talk given at the 2011 Wrexham Science Festival. The first part, ‘The Singularity is Coming … Or Is It?‘, appears separately.  However, both have a common thread and share some material.)

It seems that the next few decades may give us something really remarkable: truly intelligent computers; that, before the 21st century is a half, maybe a third, old, we could be living with machines capable of genuine, independent thought.  Apparently, this is not science fiction or the ‘artificial intelligence’ of the 20th century but real intelligence.  So many questions … Can that really happen?  Will it?  How?  What does it mean?  What will that world be like?  What do we have to look forward to?  Or to fear?  How do we get from here to there … and do we want to?  How does today’s AI technology develop into tomorrow’s thinking machine?  What will we do with it when we’ve got it?  What happens if we get it wrong?  Can we ultimately build something ‘better’ than us?  Will we be served by teams of intelligent robots or is there a risk that we could end up serving them?  Or, as we and the machines both evolve, will the ‘natural’ distinction between human and computer eventually become blurred and ultimately unimportant?  Pause for breath … Continue reading

The Glorious Gödel

This might seem a bit off-track but a blog inspired, even loosely, by Alan Turing, can hardly not mention Kurt Gödel.  In simple terms, it could be said that Gödel was to Mathematics what Turing was to Computer Science but even that’s a pretty one-dimensional portrayal.  Both were intrigued by what was possible in science and mathematics and both shed light on how one area of research could be used to model another.  Turing’s work with the patterns of nature has parallels with Gödel’s models of the universe.  Both were intent on considering the ‘bigger picture’, whether spiritual or part of a ‘master program’.  Turing saw order in chaos; Gödel saw God in science. Continue reading

‘The Singularity’ is Coming … Or is it?

(The first of two posts distilled from a talk given at the 2011 Wrexham Science Festival. The second part, ‘Dawn of the Intelligent Machines?, appears separately.  However, both have a common thread and share some material.)

It’s sometimes said in the media and entertainment world that you haven’t made it until you’ve been ridiculed on South Park. The technological equivalent is probably that a concept isn’t mainstream until it’s featured in Dilbert. If that’s the case, then ‘the singularity’ has passed a necessary (if not sufficient) condition. But does that make it any more real? Continue reading