Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Many people take their ability to think for granted. For some people, thinking seems to happen automatically. Others struggle to understand a concept. People like Christine O'Donnell are defiantly proud to demonstrate that ignorance is bliss.

A tiny percentage of the earth's population focuses its attention on topics like neural networks, the chemical or electrical functions of a synapse, or how to recreate a particular thought process. While overt displays of intelligence can scare some people away, real and/or artificial intelligence are constant sources of fascination.

For a child learning to talk (or a stroke patient who is relearning how to walk), the way the brain functions remains a total mystery. Two documentaries being screened at DocFest 2010 probe the mysteries of the human mind in startling ways.

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For people who have enjoyed years of intelligent life, losing their cognitive abilities, discovering that their brains do not function properly, or descending into dementia of the Alzheimer's type can be terrifying. Not too many people get the chance to document their mental illness.  However, Bud Clayman (who suffer's from Asperger's syndrome) has made a discomforting film which, although it might not seem great by film school standards, represents a remarkable achievement for the filmmaker. As Clayman explains:
"This is a film about coping. It is a film about learning to live with oneself in the real world. My name is Bud Clayman and I am one of the directors of OC87. The title OC87 refers to a state I was in in 1987 when I tried to control my whole world. I literally tried to be independent of everyone and everything around me. If someone would go to make small talk with me, I would remain silent. If someone would try to help me, I would refuse that help.
This film is my coming out party, so to say. It is a rebirth for me which I think everybody should have. It is a letting go of the shackles and demons that have haunted me most of my life. It is my personal liberation. The challenges on this film have been many, both good and bad. Learning to manage other people, working in a cooperative manner with others, and asserting my creative vision with people who have, by far, many more years of experience at this than I do have been difficult for me. But succeeding at these things and gaining my power both as a person and then as an artist have been the most satisfying for me.
Ironically, 22 years from when my former so-called independence started, because of this film I am now interdependent with people. Everyone on this film and everyone around me have helped me grow and mature as a human being. They have helped me begin to love and learn from life again. Isn’t that what it’s all about?"
Bud Clayman gets a boxing lesson
Billed as "The Obsessive Compulsive Major Depression Bipolar Asperger's Movie," OC87 is very much about a life interrupted. As a teenager, Bud Clayman's goal was to become a filmmaker. However, as his mental illness grew and deepened, filmmaking became a distant dream.

The documentary helps to explain the emotional pain someone like Clayman suffers from obsessing over poor judgments, inappropriate statements, and moments that would otherwise roll off a normal person's back. It is a film in which a grown man reacts to some situations like a child, dreads regressing from the progress he has made, and continually struggles to rejoin the human race.

While I salute Clayman's courage in using the documentary format as a form of therapy to produce a film of surprising intimacy, OC87 is not always easy to watch. Here's the trailer:

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In 1921, Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek premiered a controversial play about man-made robots. R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) actually introduced the word "robot" into the vocabulary. According to Wikipedia:
"The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people called 'robots.' Unlike the modern usage of the term, these creatures are closer to the modern idea of androids or even clones, as they can be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans, although that changes and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. After finishing the manuscript, Čapek realized that he had created a modern version of the Jewish Golem legend. He later took a different approach to the same theme in War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society."

Ninety years later, man is getting closer to realizing Capek's vision. Written and directed by Jens Schanze, Plug and Pray examines the ongoing efforts of computer programmers to advance the science of artificial intelligence.

While the most apparent uses of robots are for military applications, performing routine chores, and helping to care for the elderly, man's vanity and arrogance have not diminished in the time since Capek's play had its world premiere. Although some of the inventors interviewed for this documentary like to boast that they expect artificial intelligence will eventually allow robots to do anything a human being can do -- and even have the same rights as citizens -- I didn't see any evidence that any code was being written that would allow a robot to experience projectile vomiting, explosive diarrhea, hot flashes, or irregular menstrual cycles.

As is to be expected, this film (in which I could not spot a single female engineer) is very much an exercise in the study of "boys and their toys." Among the scientists interviewed for Plug and Pray who are wildly enthusiastic about the progress being made in artificial intelligence are:

One of the rare voices of dissent, was former MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum, who had long ago soured on idealistic visions of technological omnipotence (his 1975 book "Computer Power and Human Reason -- From Judgment to Calculation," contains a harsh critique of man's limitless faith in the redemptive powers of science). The creator of ELIZA (the world’s first speech recognition program), he wonders what will it mean to be human in a world run by machines. Or a world in which machines have equal rights with humans.

Although he died in 2008, in his last years Weizenbaum often took the role of Cassandra with regard to the moral and ethical implications of the uses of artificial intelligence. While younger people may think of him as an old fart, I wish he could have stuck around longer. Programming wunderkind Jaron Lanier once wrote:
 “The reason the Hippocratic oath exists is to place the priority on helping individual people rather than medical science in the abstract. As a physician, it would be wrong to choose furthering your agenda of future medicine at the expense of a patient. And yet, computer science thinks it's perfectly fine to further its agenda of trying to make computers autonomous at the expense of everyday users.
We have to have an honest appreciation for how little progress we've made in this area. Programmers are sacrificing the user in order to have this fantasy that the computers are turning into creatures. These features found their way in not because developers think people want them, but because this idea of making autonomous computers has gotten into their heads. When you have a generation who believes that a computer is an independent entity that's on its way to becoming smarter and smarter, then your design aesthetic shifts so that you further its progress toward that goal. That's a very different design criteria than just making something that's best for the people."
Several years ago, in response to one of my Transcription Trends columns in For The Record Magazine, I received an e-mail promoting a product that had been developed for use in data warehousing situations. Essentially, the software captured a dictator’s speech through an enhanced approach to voice recognition. It would then extract key words from the report and parse the information in such a way as to make it valuable to market researchers and number crunchers.

When I raised a question about protecting patient confidentiality, I received a response from the company's president which was most unsettling. As you might have guessed, the author was a physician. 

  • A very rich physician who had secured quite a lot of government funding for his product. 
  • A very practical physician who knew that many doctors can’t dictate their way out of a paper bag. 
  • A very proud physician who saw nothing wrong with his lack of scientific method in approaching the English language
  • And alas, a very egotistical physician who, by failing to use a spell checker, had revealed a tragic flaw of Shakespearean proportions. 

What follows is my response:
“Dear Doctor:

I don't doubt that you and your colleagues spent $10 million dollars on software. Or that it still has ‘some ways to go.’ However, the message you just sent me contains enough spelling errors (including my name) and grammatical mistakes to make it unacceptable as work that must be produced for a professional medical transcription service. We deal with many people -- including physicians -- who may be brilliant healthcare providers but are nevertheless functionally illiterate. Many -- even though they are board certified -- could not get hired for work as an office temp. That's the reality we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Your software may be fantastic. But if the people who are creating this program are writing and using the English language at the level of the message you just sent me, then I would worry about the quality assurance of the documents you intend to submit as patient documentation.”
Although it has some genuinely creepy moments, Plug and Pray is definitely worth your attention. Here's the trailer:


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