23 May, 2010

The Story of Language...

Languages have also been a very fascinating subject in my life. For one , I feel as if I should be able to speak more languages than I do. My parents are Haitian but I was born in Brooklyn, I speak English fluently (without a Brooklyn accent) but my Haitian creole is halting, my French is halting. I'd need some serious practice in both to be truly fluent. However, the similarities between the Latin languages allows me to figure out maybe 30% of spoken Italian, Portuguese, Spanish if the speaker speaks slowly enough. My facility with spoken languages would improve if I had the practice but the last few years have been spent getting around the problem rather than attacking it directly and it has a fascinating history that I will detail below.

The history of the formation of languages is something I've done a lot of reading on, the other reason for my interest is that I am a software engineer and program in several different computer languages: c++,java,xsl,javascript,css,xml are all on my plate for my work. The various programming languages define the function of the software I've designed in the distributed web platform AgilEntity. In fact as a theme language is the entity upon which I've centered my first startup (numeroom) built on the AgilEntity platform.

Language in the human family is an amazing story, it allowed our ancestors to communicate silently on hunts (using gestures), it allowed coordination using specific sounds later using the voice and later still it was useful to encode ideas into those sounds for the purpose of casual communication which for the first time allowed large amounts of acquired individual experience to be shared with a local group, then as these groups grew in size and languages became more complex, methods were invented to codify them put them to stone and parchment and now a permanent record of human thought arose, writing. The advancement of the human family is entirely owed to this shift in going from language as symbolic motions of body parts (face to limbs) to language as symbolic sounds to language as symbolic shapes. The irony is though as all these separately evolving language and writing families expanded, they touched...and in so touching their *differences* became great source for discord, misunderstanding and war. Language the tool that liberated us from the savanna now became our bane! It hampered cross cultural growth (except through war) and for the last 4 or 5 thousand years as these different civilizations touched, they mostly fought! We became prisoners of our language and character families, requiring translation to relay nuances of information exchange, slowing down communication. As the industrial revolution approached and we found ways to relay information quickly (even if it then needed to be translated) we learned to send communication over electric wires using the telegraph, then later the telephone and just over 100 year ago, through the air itself using invisible light. These advances helped mitigated against misunderstandings related to the speed of communication but still the difference in languages persisted, particularly for the purpose of commerce. The common people of nations were still for the most part trapped both geographically and linguistically from the other nations of the world. This isolation kept xenophobia alive and well into the last century as war reached its pinnacle with the deaths of millions over perceived but false ideas of cultural and ethnic superiority. We had some technology but were still prisoners of our languages. It's only in the last 40 years that the final piece to eliminating the barrier came into being, the internet closed the gap on communication so that people other than statesmen could communicate rapidly and over time cheaply. As the web emerged in the early 90's the bulk population of all nations now had a way to interact with the bulk of all other nations, yet still language formed a barrier. In the late 90's companies like Alta Vista began to create translation dictionaries between various languages, in 2002, Google joined the space and made available web based services for translating web pages or snippets of text. These one shot services though only served the needs of the one, in the moment of the request. I saw the need in 2005 for a different solution that could facilitate agnostic language communication in a social context.

As a child I remember clearly the Biblical story of The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), it fascinated me that even in the writings of the stone age writers of that story there was an implicit understanding of the *divisive* power of language. If you'll recall, a coming together of Peoples in the plains of Shinar in those days (when all people spoke the same language according to the Bible) the people wanted to build a monument to Man, a tower that pierced the sky. The Hebrew God did not like this 'arrogance' of Man to believe in his own power (another Irony as our own power is all we have evidence for) and so in the midst of their gathering for the construction he struck them all to speaking different languages. The lack of understanding scattered them off to all far regions of the world and thus we have different languages. The childlike simplicity of Biblical stories (written by grown Men) must be appreciated, it shows how child like all of human understanding was at this time in history only 3,000 years ago. In any event the irony is that the writers of the story knew that having us all speaking the same language would allow us to build the tower! So to explain the failure of this neighboring culture (which spoke a different language!) to build the tower, the Hebrews say that their God struck them dumb...this highlights an interesting historical truth about the time, the middle east was a nexus point of transit from Africa to Asia and back, many peoples and languages formed, evolved, warred and were driven extinct due to these conflicts of migration. Yet still the concept of a single language as a unifying force for Man was implicitly known and in fact actively feared.

I always found this fascinating and it is only in the last 4 years, while engaged in a chat room with a non English (Romanian) speaker, almost 5 years ago that I realized a way I could build a modern digital tower of babel. One day in 2005 I thought it would be awesome if I could simply type in English and have her read Romanian and have her type in Romanian and I read English. I knew that I could co-opt Googles Translate service to get this done and hacked their consumer page to "borrow" the translation service, 3 days later I had a working version of this translated web chat. Unfortunately it didn't support Romanian as Google Translate didn't support Romanian at the time. Since then I've managed to create an efficient and highly scalable distributed solution to the many to many real time language problem of a group chat, unlike a single IM...a group chat requires some way of managing all the spoken languages, translating between them simultaneously. I invented a way to do this that took advantage of the distributed nature of the AgilEntity platform and would not require the conversing clients poll one another (doing it this way would plateau and then quickly lose efficiency as client cross talk increased). The business collaboration service I plan to launch features this and many other implicit translation and collaboration features that are all designed to make language as irrelevant as possible. I am fund hunting and hope to release it as a public service soon, in so doing I want to change human communication by achieving the fear of the Hebrew God, of allowing humans to communicate freely without the barrier of language and thus allow us to achieve our true potential.


22 May, 2010

Synthetic life ..........are we ready ?

J. Craig Venter announces the boot up of the first artificial genetic sequence:


Regarding the ethical issues of doing this now, he is right for TODAY...

but when the costs come down dramatically in the next 10 years (as they did for pc programming)

as the knowledge continues to be refined with bulletproof techniques...

as GDE 's(genetic development environment) are developed to allow a high level genetic language syntax to be used to build organisms using an abstraction (like coding applications but with a "maker" step) there will be a huge potential for trouble as any "gene kiddie" (analog of script kiddies today) will be able to tinker together something "for fun" that I don't know, invades all pigs and causes their intestines to shut down, or causes cows to die on the field after eating grass...who knows...as varied and nefarious as malware methods and vectors are in software coding, expect the same ecosystem of miscreants to exist for programming living things...be they synthetic or not. Venter's comment is incredibly naive and full of hubris...people like myself and Bill Joy who's expressed similar concerns feel differently.

I hope I am wrong.

12 May, 2010

A bit on "faith" , "belief" and the inapplicability to real science.

This posts builds on a response to a thread started by a mutual friend on facebook that I thought merited exposition here.

I am a firm proponent of the methods of science having been trained in them and employ them in my work and life, but I have no faith. The collections of data that form the theories posited by science are not accepted by what they will predict they are accepted by what they have predicted...this is a subtle difference that makes assertions of all scientists having "faith" as some define it a fallacious one. I have no faith that any of the systems which have succeeded at answering questions about the workings of the world will continue to do so, I have only past evidence that they have. This is the difficulty of scientists...of falling into the "I believe this will happen." trap instead of asserting the "In the past, data of this sort was explained by this process." in the first, "faith" and "belief" are implicit...in the latter they are superfluous. One is a correlation between events past and present and the other is contingent on a "belief" casting into the future.

I remember first reading David Hume's causality argument and at first being confused by his seemingly devastating argument...but then I realized that his argument assumed that it was important to have causality at all...pure science doesn't require causality. If the laws of physics changed randomly every few moments ...would that negate our effort to try to understand the new configurations of the world from moment to moment? No. If we could in the short intervals infer a way to navigate the new space that works for a short time it would be worth it ..as we would have no other choice. In a limiting process, as these intervals of fluctuation accelerate we go from being able to say something about the world to asserting nothing but the moment..because the next moment could be explained differently. "Belief" and "faith" is an artifact of having finite durations of relative stability in the world we find ourselves coupled with the complacency and convenience of causal correlations and predictions about the future based on them...however the predictions ("faith","belief") are not necessary, as science is about the moment compared to the past. As the moment changes to invalidate the explanations of the past, then the description of the moment becomes the past to explain the new moments...no faith, no belief.

If I were to plot a course in a rocket ship to the moon and being on my way, realize that my ship is guided off course despite the calculations being correct. I must assume that something has changed, prior to the launch I didn't have "faith" that the ship would get to the moon..I had a set of correlations and rules under which the data of those correlations could be explained in the past. If the same rules (theory) could not explain the new situation in which I find myself then the conclusion is that the rules changed. So really if there is any "faith" in science...it is not "faith" in the corpus of rules that have explained the world, our theories being right...it is faith that they don't go wrong when we can't afford them to! Or more technically that we don't sample them in regimes in which their ability to infer solutions have sparse supporting empirical data. But this is not faith at all as it doesn't exist prior to the experience of "oh look the laws of physics just changed" or "oh I am off course on way to the moon"...no one actively thinks "gee I sure hope the laws of physics don't change on my way to the moon" which would be a faith statement.

In this way science models the iterative learning process of a neural network, acquiring patterns and changing them as data comes in, not judging, not predicting, not extrapolating, not believing why the data changes...just assimilating it in comparison to older data if it matches and changing older data if it doesn't. It is in comparison of *different* sets of these acquired pattern systems that the fallacy of faith can wiggle into the picture and I've always found that ironic.

In a comment response to that thread the statement was made that my position, which seemed to down play prediction in the use of scientific theory was a rare one for some on trained in a hard science (Electrical Engineering). I must admit it seems that most engineers see these philosophical micro analysis as a pedantic waste of time, if you think of it I am being a consummate engineer...rather than placing faith in any predictive capability of any theory that I used to design things in the world, I simply see the theory as a tool itself readily discarded or modified when it fails to help me "build" things (which is precisely how we are supposed to use them as prescribed by science itself!). The predictions are backward looking (on the past data) as opposed to forward looking (with some hope they'll work) so the proper position of constant doubt is never changed, and where can faith prosper where doubt is a constant refrain?? ;) Another delicious irony. ;)