Sunday, March 29, 2009

I´m a Jerk, Part 2

The folks who read this blog probably already know that I hate the co-opting of Christianity with other politics, sports, etc.

At Asbury College, a Christian liberal arts college in Kentucky, the following verse was adopted (from

Isaiah 40:31 (New International Version)

31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

This was particularly ´comforting´ for the sports teams and they used this ´promise´ in Scripture for their games. But I don´t think God cares about sports, so I started circulating the following Biblical retort (from

Obadiah 1:4 (New International Version)

4 Though you soar like the eagle
and make your nest among the stars,
from there I will bring you down,"
declares the LORD.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


This is a symbolic recreation of the time I spun a nickel on a table and it never fell. It stood up on end just like the start.

My Trip to Copacabana

Views From La Isla Del Sol

Incan Ruins

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Robots and the Coming Revolution

I just finished a book, entitled ¨Wired for War¨ by P.W. Singer, that focuses on the use of robots in warfare. There has been an exponential rise in the use of robots in peaceful applications and in warfare and the author suggests that humanity is woefully behind debating the ethical ´behavior´and use of robots. Even science fiction is having trouble keeping up with the new realities humanity is seeing in the fields of nanotechnology, robotics, etc.

If human society finds enough resources to sustain itself (averts large-scale environmental tragedy and scarcity), then I think the following robotic vision is probable.

I have culled a few definitions, a few statistics, a few philosophical and legal questions arising from their use, and finally a few prescriptions from the author regarding robots. Buy the book.


A robot is a man-made device with three key components: ¨sensors¨that monitor the environment and detect changes in it,¨processors¨or ¨artificial intelligence¨ that decides how to respond, and ¨effectors¨ that act upon the environment in a manner that reflects the decisions, creating some sort of a change in the world around the robot. p.67

Artificial Intelligence is the ability of a machine to ´perceive something complex and make appropriate decisions.´ -Singer quoting Sebastian Thrun, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Standford. p. 77

Statistics and Interesting Facts:

-By 2007, more than 3 million Roomba robot vacuum cleaners had been sold.
-There are robot companions for the elderly in Japan, robot lawn mowers, and robot butlers. If you can imagine a robot filling a particular need, it probably is in development somewhere.
-Most of the video games characters you are playing against have AI. Most crowd scenes in Hollywood movies are now created with AI.
-Most of the currently funded robotic research comes from military budgets; therefore, the greatest technological advances in robotics have come in the realm of weaponized machines or machines that help humans keep from, recover from, being wounded in battle.
-There are robot planes, robot submarines, robot helicopters, robotic guns, robotic minesweepers and explosive ordinance robots. Most of these (some just prototypes)already autonomously perform better than their human counterparts. They can fly, shoot, etc. with more precision, more accuracy, with better timing, with better maneuverability, with better safety than if operated by humans. Currently, the military has a strong preference for keeping humans ´in the loop´....meaning giving the orders to shoot. However, there are autonomous weaponized machines that have acted without human intervention based on their own protocol.
-By 2008, there were 5,331 drone planes in the US military, double the amount of manned planes. p.37
-There is widespread speculation within the Air Force that there will be no need for human fighter pilots in future conflicts.
-93 percent of the bombs dropped in the 1991 Gulf War were ¨dumb¨, 70 percent of bombs dropped in the 2003 air campaign were precision smart bombs. p.61
-In 2006, the Defense Department budget required that the Pentagon show a ´preference for joint unmanned systems in acquisition programs´...including a requirement that if any manned system is presented, a certification must also be presented that an unmanned system is incapable of meeting program requirements. p.65There are plans for unmanned supply trucks, unmanned Humvees, and submarines with skeleton crews. In other words, all military spending has to show a preference for unmanned systems.
-¨In 1993, (Vernor) Vinge authored a seminal essay¨ entitled ´The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era¨ where he projected that within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will end. p. 103. Think Terminator.
-Roboticists and Science Fiction writers refer to Singularity...which for robotics and strong AI is the exact time in which machines become self aware and therefore start to perform in ways outside of their programmed ´nature´. At that point uncertainty will prevail. Since the ¨intelligence¨ of machines is rising at an exponential rate and often that intelligence is adaptive, many scientists in the field predict that in less than 30 years time a machine becomes self-aware.
-Many military strategists believe that in the future there will be some combination of human and robot interaction at all levels of combat (observation, planning, actual combat in the future). Under development at DARPA is ¨Pete¨ which is an electronic assistant for commanders. Pete would work with commanders to formulate military responses. Under the military´s decision making framework of the OODA loop, Pete might perform as much as 90 percent of the Observe (gathering data), 70 percent of the Orient (making sense of data), 30 percent of the Decide, and 50 percent of the Action. p.359
-The following protocol is an example of how a robot might be programmed to act without needing human intervention: Is the target a weapon confirmed to be used by the enemy¿ Identification confirmed. Is the target located in an authorized free-fire zone¿ Location confirmed. Are there any civilians within a ____ meter radius¿ No civilians detected. Are there any friendly units within a ____ meter radius¿ No friendlies detected. Weapon release authorized. No human command authority required. p.401. There are also suggestions that a proportional response to the threat be programmed into the weaponized machine.
-It isn´t just the US military who is interested in this technology, but most other governments, some paramilitary groups, and even non-profits. A lot of these robots can be purchased at trade shows.
-The International Red Cross has a division that inspects weapons so they do not violate the Laws Of Armed Conflict (LOAC). Each nation is supposed to have its weapons inspected before they are used in combat. No nation has ever subjected its weaponized robots to these inspections.
-The city of Los Angeles is planning to fly drones over high crime neighborhoods, so these applications transcend military operations and extend to all sorts of privacy issues.

Interesting Philosophical and Legal Questions:

1) If a weaponized drone is being flown over Iraq or Afghanistan by a US operator living there (since most drones are being flown from the Southwest USA), can an Iraqi or Afghani legally target that combatant on US soil¿
2) If a drone was flown by a non-military operator (which has happened frequently, not just by firms like Blackwater, but also by design companies like Northrop Grumman), can that operator be prosecuted if they acted inappropriately¿ Would that operator be prosecuted in civilian or military courts¿
3) If a non-military combatant (drone operator) were captured, what would his/her status be legally to the enemy¿ If the US has claimed that it is fighting largely enemy combatants (not state soldiers), outside the protections of the Geneva Convention, does not Iraq and Afghanistan have the same legal standing to ´hold´or ´torture´ any US paramilitary contractor and/or military contract firm¿
4) If a computer scientist were to code a weaponized machine that is used properly but malfunctions causing civilian or friendly deaths, should the computer scientist be prosecuted¿
5) If a commander uses the weaponized machine outside of the scope of its design which causes civilian or friendly deaths, should the commander be prosecuted¿
6) Can proportionality be programmed into a weaponized machine so that if under threat from a child with an AK-47, that the weaponized robot does not bomb the whole village¿
7) What are the legal rights of a robot and specifically a robot in warfare¿ For instance, the US currently considers it self-defense when a pilot is targeted by radar and has the right to fire first to prevent its own destruction. The US also considers the same rights for its drones...that an unmanned drone has the right to fire if first targeted by radar. What other legal ´protections´ should be provided for robots¿
8) What ¨laws¨ should be programmed into robots¿ Should robots be confined to respond only defensively or are some offensive capabilities allowed¿
9) What is the new definition of war¿ In the past, war was defined when at least two parties fought both parties were susceptible to physical harm. Already, some Iraqi and Afghani fighters consider the US cowardly for fighting with machines and fighting from afar, and US soldiers consider it cowardly that fighters would shield themselves with women and children. If one or both sides cannot personally come to physical harm, what is the new word that defines this conflict¿

Authors Prescriptions:

1) Yes, an Iraqi or Afghani can legally target a US combatant on US soil.
2) Yes, that US combatant, even though non military, should be able to be prosecuted if they acted inappropriately. Therefore, it is extremely important that these roles be taken out of the hand of private military contractors or design firms.
3) Yes, if a non-military combatant (drone operator) were captured, Iraq or Afghanistan, if going by the same rules as the US, would classify these people as enemy combatants that fall outside of the protections of the Geneva Convention.
4) Yes, if a computer scientist were to code a weaponized machine that is used properly but malfunctions causing civilian or friendly deaths, that computer scientist should be prosecuted.
5) Yes, if a commander uses the weaponized machine outside of the scope of its design which causes civilian or friendly deaths, the commander be prosecuted.
8) The ¨laws¨ programmed into robots should be the same for every country. These ¨laws¨ should be agreed upon by the international community.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The First Thing I Did In Bolivia

was buy water. You know... me...experienced traveler, make sure to have necessities. Clean drinking water and a clean bottle are priority #1.

I buy agua con gas, NOT agua sin gas. I take the water bottle home, open the bottle and hear it open like a soda bottle. I just bought carbonated water.

I try to brush my teeth with the carbonated water, but there isn´t enough room in my mouth for the amount of foam that is being created. The interaction of toothpaste and carbonated water is like a science experiment. I am leaking, spitting, and foaming.

I look like I need an injection at the hospital because of all the foaming.

My Time In Bolivia

I have had a wonderful two first weeks here in Cochabamba. I settled in with my host family two Monday´s ago and started studying Spanish the next day.

I attend 3.5 hours of classes each day and then, if I am good, study/practice for another hour each day. I live about 6 blocks from the school and walk there everyday.

My host family is incredible. I live with a mom, dad, two daughters, and a grandma that comes over for all the meals. It seems everyone is a professional in this family (two attorneys, one pilot, and one in medical school).

At the Institute, there are students from the US, Canada, Korea, Ireland, Switzerland, Japan, and others as well. There are additional seminars offered each week in addition to the classroom sessions as some social/athletic events. I plan on playing volleyball with them every week.

About 10 of us traveled to Copacabana over the weekend as part of the cultural learning experience for the school. We stayed near Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. This trip was quite enjoyable and we took several hikes (as the lake is surrounded by hills/mountains. Hopefully, pictures will be forthcoming.

My Spanish is coming slowly, but I am enjoying this time nonetheless.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Part 2

Today I described someone as ´easy´ in easy to get along with. What I said, in fact, was that they were ´easy´ in promiscuous.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Translation Difficulties


Over dinner, we were talking about how much people in Cochabamba like to eat and why I wasn´t eating more. (We had been told to eat a bit less at least at first, because the altitude slows digestion). In reply, instead of asking whether my stomach was fat, I asked whether my stomach was beautiful. Yes, they said, and my face. So polite.


Using a mixture of English, hand gestures, and Spanish with a friend, I asked where was a mutual friend. She replied that he was with my pregnant mother in Chile. Ouch.

Post-analysis: I think that instead of asking where he was, I asked where he was from. And even though he has lived in Cochabamba all his life, his mom was pregnant with him in Chile.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Immigration & Customs

After a trip from El Salvador, I was confronted at immigration:

Immigration: Who do you know that lives at 323 Summertree Drive in Duluth, Georgia¿
Me: I don´t know anyone that lives there.

Immigration: Who do you know in Georgia¿
Me: My grandmother, who passed away, used to live there. And I have some distant family members there: some great aunts, uncles, and second cousins.

Immigration: When did you last visit Georgia¿
Me: It was years ago. We used to vacation there a couple weeks every summer.
Why are you asking me these things¿

Immigration: The computer told me to ask.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Things I Do Not Like to See/Hear When On Airplanes

1) After the cabin doors had been closed, the pilot was handed ice through his cockpit window, which he had to pass on to the flight attendants. We have to have ICE!!.. No matter the dripping ice on the controls of the plane.

2) The pilot who went back into the cabin to get magazines to read for the flight.

3) A flight attendant who grimaces and tilts his head when he hears an unfamiliar noise the plane is making.

4) Hearing any pilot say ¨we should be okay¨. Certainty is best in this profession.

5) Liz´s CRAZY story about a drunk flight attendant on one of her last flights.

6) Seeing clouds pour through the plane. It couldn´t have been smoke, no one was screaming (refer to previous post of a flight between Guinea and Sierra Leone).

7) Not having much lift during take off. This one turned out really cool. On the flight from El Alto to Cochabamba, El Alto is already at 13,000 feet or something similar. So we were flying really close to the ground at first, until the valley opened up and we were automatically quite high off the ground then. It made me think of those people that run and parachute off mountains.