Inorganic Intelligence

AI. Artificial Intelligence. We’ve been writing about it, researching it, creating it, scared of it, delighted with it for decades. However, I think the word “Intelligence”, like so many others, drifts across a large range of meanings and so I would like to record my view.

The first, and most common “mistake” is to equate intelligence with knowledge. People are often referred to as being intelligent when they can impress people with facts on a subject or range of subjects. This definition of intelligence makes the phrase artificial intelligence easy to accept because of course computers can store vast amounts of information and retrieve it quickly, giving an appearance of intelligence by this meaning.

A second meaning is to demonstrate a “thinking” skill. Playing chess, or winning at “Go” are the oft cited examples of artificial intelligence. But before we call it artificial intelligence, is it in fact intelligence? I would say not. These are mathematical algorithms or game theory.

Nevertheless, despite these underwhelming interpretations of intelligence many people fear “AI” and believe it is just around the corner; the combination of mathematical technologies broadly categorised by neural networking, big data and machine learning combined with the physical technologies offering faster and faster processing, greater storage and even quantum computing have led people to believe that our very humanity is at threat.

It is wise to assess the risks, and who knows, we may one day give rise to artificial intelligence but I don’t think we are in danger.

I think there are a number of aspects to intelligence. In no particular order:

  • problem solving
  • awareness
  • creativity
  • harmlessness

This may look like an odd list and that is because it is very “human centric”. The intelligence I am trying to describe is a human one – a set of attributes against which we can compare non-human, particularly machine (inorganic) behaviours. We can imagine “alien” behaviours, a good example is in the book “Solaris” but their very “alienness” would make it impossible for us to comprehend if it was intelligent or not. We are doomed to measure everything only against what we can comprehend.

So, back to the list.

Problem solving is about goal or purpose. I think this is fundamentally tied in with evolution and survival. Being able to solve problems (think) bestows an evolutionary advantage, not just in terms of figuring out new ways to “eat” but new ways to evade predators or attack prey. This was beautifully demonstrated in the recent Blue Planet series with the reef octopus outsmarting the shark or the fish using tools to build a nest. We can see a whole spectrum of this kind of intelligence across the animal kingdom and we often refer to dogs, dolphins and whales as clever creatures. In this dimension, they really are. [In the human case, evolution may have gone to far and made our brains so big they are a threat to the ecosystem and life itself. Kurt Vonnegut explores this idea in “Galapagos”]

Awareness is along the lines of “emotional intelligence”; a sense of empathy, what impact your words and actions are having on the internal mental “state” of another. I’m not saying that this type of awareness must be used for “good”, which takes us down a route of bringing a moral dimension to intelligence. Perhaps a broader definition could include this, but harmlessness, discussed below is as far as I will go.

Creativity – something we like to thing we do well. Producing something from nothing. New ideas or new ways to communicate ideas. To overlap with awareness, creativity is directed methods to deliberately change the internal “state” of other individuals. Humour, art, music, a search for knowledge born of curiosity are all involved.

Harmlessness is about not destroying yourself. A bit like awareness but on your physical surroundings. This can be immediate surroundings, or the Universe as a whole. It can be over any time span from minutes to aeons. We would certainly consider ourselves more intelligent if we knew what impact out actions would have in a distant future. And we would not describe anything as intelligent which acted to destroy the environment which sustained it. Given our impact on the planet, this makes humans look pretty stupid; back to “Galapagos” again.

How is “AI” in computers and software stacking up to the attributes in my list. Not very well, I would say. Of course my list does not contain AI’s strong hand of knowledge or mathematical problem solving. Perhaps I am deliberately biasing my list in favour of humanity!

Problem solving: do AIs evolve? Do they write themselves? Are they driven to live long enough to pass their genetic information on to the next generation? Does not apply.

Awareness: I have yet to see a program demonstrate empathy for another.

Creativity: Never mind the Turing test, when was the last time a computer made you laugh, deliberately, by telling a joke. Actually, maybe programs are doing that to each other all the time and we just don’t know about it. Tron?

Harmlessness: when AI becomes self sufficient then we can see if it is harmless. Long way to go.

Intelligence cannot be artificial, it’s just a set of attributes of a system be it organic or inorganic. What we really mean by AI is how closely does a system which has not arisen from Darwinian evolution compare with us. Artifical intelligence should really be called inorganic intelligence. Of course, you could also take the view that we are just a stage in the evolutionary process which adapts into inorganic intelligence. “Sometimes men build robots, sometimes robots build men. What does it matter, really, whether one thinks with metal or with protoplasm?” to give the last word to the representative of the highest possible level of development (H.P.L.D.) in Stanislaw Lem’s “The Cyberiad”, Altruizine.

Robotic Process Automation

When I started this blog in 2010 it was pretty technical and centred around the uptake of virtualisation in the IT industry. Since then virtualisation has become mainstream and as my role has changed the blog has become more of a personal technology diary.

However, there is a new technology in town, which promises to change the industry, and the world. Robotics. Or to be precise Process Automation. The first hurdle the industry faces is to get away from the image of a “Robot”, which is essentially a machine. It doesn’t do itself any favours by using the word, not to mention 90% of articles contain a picture of one.

It’s just software. And what it our icon for software? Well, that’s the problem…we don’t really have one. It’s always difficult to have images for non-tangible things. Use Google to search for software and specify “Images”. See what you get. Nothing useful I bet.

Nevertheless, process automation is crossing the chasm and I hope to blog more about it. I’ll put the problem of an icon for process automation on the back burner. There is an IEEE working group chaired by Lee Coulter. Not sure if the IEEE use logos on standards though.

Wireless Woes

My latest home tech purchase is a TP-Link 300Mbps Mini wireless N USB Adapter. This was intended to replace the cable I have to run every time I want to connect my server to the internet (my home wired network not working very well and involves lifting floorboards to fix).

Purchased from Maplin for £10 it looked ideal as it supported Linux. However… it supports Ubuntu, not Centos. And even for Ubuntu you need to *compile* the driver into the kernel! But that’s ok because that’s what we sign up to for Linux.

Centos is a problem though. Unless I am missing something, there seems to be no native driver for the RTL8192CU chipset and none in the elRepo repository I added for Centos 7.

Compiling the driver for Centos sounds like a bunch of work and I’m surprised no-one has done it already. I will have to do a bit more digging and maybe add it to the list of things to do.

Swann v QNAP

I’ve bought some new home tech over the past few months so here is a summary of my experience.

First a top of the range Swann security system which includes 4 ultra HD cameras and a 2TB NVR plus some very long ethernet cables. Being cabled, the cameras are of course a pain to install and the size of the RJ45 plug means you normally end up drilling several large holes in your house. That can’t be avoided but what could be avoided is the very bad software that comes with the system. Basically I still haven’t been able to get it to work.

Second I bought a set of disks for an old QNAP SS 439-Pro chassis and configured them Raid 5 for 2TB of storage. This was simple to do as was copying the old QNAP to the new one. All in all the QNAP has great s/w.

So in summary, Qnap still on the “buy” list and Swann a “hold”, leaning to “sell”. Have I been working in corporate land too long?

VR headsets

A few years ago, on holiday in Shenzhen, I was asked if I wanted to go shopping for technology as they had “everything” there. I wanted to buy a VR headset as they had only just been invented so I was taken round numerous shops and markets but no-one understood what I was asking for and could only show me 3D TV sets.

More recently, a friend of mine bought a VR headset; we downloaded an app to my phone and had a quick play in the office. We decided you needed a swivel chair to make good use of VR.

We’re not talking Occulus Rift or HTC Vive here, just a bit of plastic that you can put a smartphone in and run an app. This would be great, I thought, for viewing the pictures from my 3D camera that I have had for years from which I have built up quite a library of pictures (a Fujifilm Finepix 3D).

However there seems to be a gap in the market here as I can’t find an app which simply displays a slideshow of a collection of MPOs. Yes, I can find an app which displays a single MPO (AT-MPOviewer) but you have to swipe the screen to get to the next one and that’s not possible if your phone is encased in a piece of plastic. Google cardboard can do a slideshow but I don’t think it does MPO format. 3D Photo Slideshow Viewer “What’s New” dates from 2013. Surely there’s more demand for this simple use case?

I guess I’ll have to stick to my “Viewmaster” and my collection of Thunderbirds, Bugs Bunny and Micky Mouse slide shows that I got for Christmas sometime in the early 70s.



BT Icing

The next episode in this saga is that some contractors turned up, dug up the street and installed a new well and pipe to my wall to take a new line! The icing on the cake after the cake had been mixed, baked and eaten!

What will happen next?!

Happy to report performance is still solid.


Experience with switch to BT!

You have to have some sympathy for the people who work in the BT complaints department in India. You get to listen to annoyed people like me complain all day long so not a pleasant jobs and a thick skin required.

So I take my hat off to them whilst being annoyed at the overall service.

I finally made the decision to switch from Virgin after the latest increase to £35/pcm when my “special deal” ran out plus the fact that there is a terrible dip in bandwidth in the evening – I’ve been collecting stats for months. The other attractive offer from BT was a new line included when you ordered BT Infinity which gave me the opportunity to move the master socket to the middle of the house – a much better place for Wifi than the corner of the lounge.

So, it starts well when an support person calls and says she will be in charge of everything (I don’t think I heard from her again). An engineer visits and checks that the current service cannot support another line for broadband so we agree the only option is to lay a new cable from the street to the corner of the house – the cable from there to a new master socket is installed. Now I am waiting for contractors to arrive and dig up the drive for the new cable and things start to go wrong – a succession of engineers arrive to contradict the first engineer and by the third visit (about three weeks later) convince me that they would rather disconnect the current land-line and use it for the broadband (and new number). To be fair, I was going to disconnect the original line when the broadband was up and running so the expense and hassle of digging up the drive was not strictly necessary.

However, it did mean that my home number of 15 years was cut off and I had to be organised to get an order to move that number to the new line. Luckily that happened ok so I got my original number back.

So now BT Infinity is up and running and it’s working pretty well, reliable 70-80Mbps download and 16Mbps upload (much better than Virgin). A hassle to re-number all the static devices and some undesirable quirks of the smart hub e.g. not being able to turn off SID broadcast.

The next problem appears – cannot log in to BT mail. I configured an address which the website told me would be available to use in 30 minutes but something went wrong. BT mail disappeared from “My Extras” and could not log in. A succession of 2nd line support people called me and some even called me after 22:30 when I was falling asleep which really annoyed me. I registered my displeasure at the complaints site so someone else started calling me. The lack of mail was particularly irksome as to be able to send mail, MacMail has to be configured with an SMTP server and I could not connect to a BT SMTP server without the email account. I had to keep the Virgin service running to send mail.

The mail issue was eventually fixed at the end of October by the back office after ordering at the end of August. BT offered me £5 by way of goodwill, which just annoyed me even more. Mail is “free” you see so not worth anything in BT’s world.

Having done all that I called Virgin to cancel my service and close my account. Now I have customer services calling me to persuade me to stay. They offer me 150Mbps and £15/pcm! Big difference from £35! But too late and that won’t solve the performance problem.

Now it’s all configured and running, it seems good – but time will tell. Having the competition / choice is nice.


Epson trouble

Well the good news is that I got BT Infinity working – there was a bit of a mix up with BT about the installation of a second line – they realised they had to dig up the drive which they seriously didn’t want to do so disconnected my old line and used it for the new number. I was ok with that because I was going to disconnect the old line anyway but now it turns out I might not be able to move the old number to the new line and I will be seriously annoyed if I lose my home number of 15 years.

With the line up, configuring everything was quick and easy apart from – you guessed it – the Epson printer. When I first installed the printer, I had a serious moan at them about how their DNS didn’t work and they blamed the ISP after which I never got a response. Now I have spent two hours trying to reconfigure it from the old network to the new one and I can’t do it – not the way I want anyway with a static I/P address. I had to factory reset it to be able to connect the the Wifi at all. USB connection does not work.

As a printer the ET-2550 is ok but the interface and software is dis-functional. Don’t buy one unless you really, really need the ecotank feature. The other advertised features don’t work either and the entire configuration experience is not worth the hassle.


Is that a word? Well, it’s what this blog has turned into – a diary of family IT woes. However, some good news – I finally place an order BT Infinity! Virgin put their price up by £10 / month, or to be more precise my “special” discount ran out after I threatened to leave the last time.

£35 / month for just a broadband service which dips every evening and particularly at the weekend is too much. Let’s see what BT is like and at the same time I can get them to put the master socket in a location near the end of all my wired ethernet connectors.

In other news, we bought a new colour printer, an Epson Ecotank 2550 which so far has been fine. Supposedly has a 2 year supply of ink, and re-fills are cheap. One fly in the ink is that it fails to register with Epson Connect – got a call logged about that but it’s not a big problem at the moment.


Holiday Programming

I’ve always enjoyed the combined creative and logical process of programming. But like so many other things, it’s not a priority over other, more necessary daily tasks.

So a summer holiday, with very little else to do is an ideal opportunity to create a tool I had an idea for last year. In my current role, I need to take into consideration operational hours of services (applications) and maintenance windows of the infrastructure on which they run. The sounds relatively easy but is complicated by the hours being specified in multiple timezones – as the users are typically global – and the maintenance window being in yet another timezone.

To determine if a global application will fit in a given maintenance window involves converting all the times to a single zone (not forgetting daylight savings) and interpreting the table to see if there is any overlap. This is time consuming and error prone.

So much better to display the data graphically, on a clock face. One segment can represent the operational hours, another segment the maintenance window and if the two overlap, then there is an issue, which you can see in a blink.

I was unable to find an existing tool to do this so I have written it (using C, Cairo graphics on Centos).

At the moment, the program prompts for a single range of hours, but an obvious enhancement is to read these from a file – and perform the necessary timezone conversion. However, the output will look the same and a couple of examples are shown below.

Example 1

Example 1



Example 2

Example 2

Example 1 shows an application which has operational hours from 15:00 to 20:00 and a supporting system maintenance window of 23:00 to 02:00.

Example 2 shows a slightly more realistic application which runs from 07:00 until 05:00 but relies on a database which is unavailable from 04:00 to 06:00.  The overlap shows the problem straight away.

It works for me, but whether it will survive in the wild is another question! Do doubt there will be feedback which will lead to enhancements, although maybe I’d need another holiday to make them.

BTW, the trickiest part of this was positioning the text around the outside of the clock face. The text reference point has to be moved as the angle (and characters) change. This still needs some tweaking and perhaps I need to look carefully at a variety of clock faces.