Monday night miscellany, part 2

More spare thoughts from a day off work:

— I don’t own any iOS devices (an interesting subject worthy of another post given my general appreciation for Apple products) but that doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by the implications of the new Siri software Apple included with the latest version of its iPhone. The witty responses Apple has built in to its digital “personal assistant” are well worth all the tumblrs that have sprung up to chronicle them (my favorite, though it’s hard to choose). But Wired takes a look at the bigger question: does a computer system capable of parsing speech and providing appropriate responses to millions of potential questions and statements could as genuine artificial intelligence?

The answer appears to be “not yet, but maybe, depending on how you define it.” No matter how big Siri’s database of appropriate responses gets, that won’t give it self-awareness or consciousness. It will merely “shuffle symbols around without ‘understanding’ any of the symbols themselves.” So that’ll have to wait until future breakthroughs in computing.

But what Siri can do (and what Google presumably is about to also offer) is genuinely exciting:

[W]e can expect Siri’s repertoire of clever comebacks to grow in real-time through the collective effort of hundreds of Apple employees and tens or hundreds of millions of users, until it reaches the point where an adult user will be able to carry out a multipart exchange with the bot that, for all intents and purposes, looks like an intelligent conversation.

A glorified SmarterChild? Perhaps. But if one sufficiently expands the library of potential responses, is there some point at which the “AI” becomes not just quantitatively more powerful but qualitatively different? In other words, does it matter if a computer is actually sentient if it can just fake it really well? I suspect it does, but it’s a fascinating thought.

(Also, we know where the slippery slope of getting accustomed to commanding computers by voice leads.)

— Another science/technology related bit of news today comes from the New York Times and a look at some long-term thinking on space exploration. At a conference of “engineers, scientists (and) science fiction fans” sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Department’s experimental research arm, attendees took a look at the long-term questions of interstellar travel — as opposed to the more pressing concerns of finding an effective way to get a small payload into orbit. (Apropos, I’m really hoping the answer turns out to be “space elevator.”) And there were some doozies thrown out.

The headliner was one plan to accelerate a spacecraft to near-relativistic speeds not through warp drives or enormous rockets but through the same relatively old-school physics that helped Apollo 13 return safely to earth — a gravity slingshot. Put a spaceship into close orbit around an asteroid that itself orbits the sun, and the spaceship could, according to the theory, be flung out at up to one tenth the speed of light. That’s a lot. The closest star to Sol, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light-years from Earth. That means it’d take something moving at light speed 4.2 years to get there. Forty-two years is still a long time, especially since at a mere tenth the speed of light time wouldn’t measurably slow down for the traveler the way it would for someone traveling over half the speed of light. (Apparently. I had actually been under the assumption that .1c was relativistic travel until I looked it up.) But 42 years is a lot less than the 50,000 years it would take for a spacecraft to arrive with our current technology.

But I was more interested in the serious discussions about nuclear-powered space propulsion. Whatever you think about nuclear power on Earth, you have to admit it’s a different question in space:

“Space is a wonderful place to use nuclear power, because it is already radioactive,” said Geoffrey Landis, a scientist at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio (and a science fiction author).

We humans haven’t quite gotten a cognitive handle on nuclear power yet; its power is as scary as it is useful. (For a hoot, see the 1958 concept of a nuclear powered personal automobile.) But if there’s ever a place to use nuclear energy, it’s outer space — certainly moreso than primitive rockets. So I’m excited to read that “new nuclear (space) engines could be ready by the end of the decade.”

At a time when the space shuttle is grounded, NASA’s budget is being slashed and it seems like we have too many other problems to worry about the long-term, it’s a good thing to know some people are still taking the time to gaze off into space and wonder.

EDIT: When writing this segment I kept thinking of some article I could have sworn I had read about society’s failure to think big. After publishing I found it: a piece by science fiction author Neal Stephenson pivoting off the end of the space shuttle program to lament an alleged modern decline in innovation. He makes some cogent points that I think come down to society being trapped in a limbo between industrial and post-industrial mindsets. We’ve moved our goals beyond simple mass production (and production of mass) but haven’t yet found new worthwhile goals to suit our current means.

— Finally, I’m glad to see that the movie “Tintin” is getting largely positive reviews for its European release (especially once you account for some people who just don’t like motion capture technology), with multiple reviewers saying it’s a return to Steven Spielberg’s old “Indiana Jones” form after the forgettable “Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.” (I was particularly amused by this French review wondering whether “Tintin” was Spielberg’s “chef d’oeuvre” or masterwork.) Can’t wait until we Americans finally get this come December.