Monday, 9 May 2016

Techism (and you thought totalitarianism was scary): part 1

An early prototype of IBM cognitive computing system: Watson
photo: Clockready
I built my own expert system before I had even heard of them; I had my own web site before the White House had theirs; at one time, my domain was listed in the top 100 domains of the WWW. People still think it was something created in 2001, but I picked the name as something futuristic to reflect Stanley Kubrick's film: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, I find that the computer HAL's dialogue in the movie starting with "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?" eerily prophetic.

In the mid-nineties I was coming up with all sorts of ideas about how the WWW might be used. Some of my ideas were quickly followed by the thought: "Oh no, I can't do that. That would be totally evil!" Over the next few years I saw all of those ideas being utilized and, thankfully, methods being created to prevent them. There was one idea that I did use that could have had phenomenally evil applications. It was in the area of "perceptual engineering", but fortunately it was, and still is, beyond the technical abilities of the WWW. I used it to create very effective flood evacuation maps, but these were produced as printed maps and could not be reverse engineered (although one large Canadian corporation spent an entire year trying, unsuccessfully, to do just that). Even though unsuccessful, the action had disastrous consequences and I ceased doing any business, at all, in Canada, and my methods and the theories behind them do not even exist in any digital file. Unlike the other ideas, no one has even got anywhere near anything approaching them. When I die, the ideas will die too.

Sometime around the end of the millennium, I came up with an idea for a database structure which could link disparate types of knowledge. My late wife and I (she was the nuts and bolts tech person, while I was the theorist) began to work on  a database structure I called Arethusa. I named it after the Fountain of Arethusa in ancient Syracuse. It had three nested tiers that I evolved from the mythological classification system used in Greek numismatics, they were Object; Attribute; Associated object. The associated object would also be an object, in its own right, complete with its attributes and further associated objects. Here is a very simple example: There is a car (object) with a box of oranges on the back seat. Cars are not issued with boxes of oranges, but they are issued with wheels (attribute). However, anyone can place a box of oranges on the back seat of their car (associated object). These three simple categories can be used for anything in the universe. We found out that databases could not process such complex levels of data. We had originally come up with a way of linking the entire world's cultural content and an employee of the World Bank even drew us up a sample grant application to put that into practice at a surprisingly low cost mostly using localized labour in several countries they felt were at most at risk of losing their traditional cultures at that time. This included all manner of cultural content: stories, dance; legends and so on. It was not a UNESCO cultural property clone (which I consider does far more harm than good as it inhibits cross-cultural syncretism, the very building blocks of civilization).

Hearing about the latests advancements in IBM's Watson. I began to wonder if we might just have reached the amount of computing power that Arethusa needed. I began to look at it its current and projected applications. Then, with a shudder, I remembered something that fellow Albertan Marshall McLuhan had said. We will talk about that tomorrow.

Just what do you think you are doing Dave?

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