A Tale of Two Aliens
(First published on 6/3/17 on 5ish Links, my newsletter)
A couple weeks ago, I saw Alien: Covenant. As you’ve undoubtedly heard, it hearkens back to the horror of the original Alien. And it’s generally good fun. That said, I think I’m in the weird camp that actually enjoyed Prometheus — the first prequel — more.
This is blasphemy to some. Many found Prometheus to be overwrought and esoteric. It was an Alien without the alien. But I found it fascinating. It’s one of the movies that lodged itself into my brain and I would find myself thinking about it from time to time years later.
Covenant does its best to de-Prometheus the franchise. Given what you see just in the trailer, it’s not giving too much away to say that it quite literally kills off the compelling narrative of the last film in short order. Again, some will appreciate this. I did not.
That said, Covenant is a hell of a lot better than Life, which I saw last week. It’s just sort of a boring, generic Alien rip-off. It has a good cast that is almost entirely wasted. Whereas in Covenant, Michael Fassbender entirely saves the movie, while killing the last movie.
AlphaGo rose to prominence a little over a year ago when it unexpectedly defeated legendary player Lee Se-dol 4–1 in a match held in Seoul. Most computer scientists expected the feat of beating a top Go player with artificial intelligence to be decades away due to the game’s complexity and nuance, but with this week’s comprehensive defeat of Ke Jie the matter has been settled.
“The research team behind AlphaGo will now throw their considerable energy into the next set of grand challenges, developing advanced general algorithms that could one day help scientists as they tackle some of our most complex problems, such as finding new cures for diseases, dramatically reducing energy consumption, or inventing revolutionary new materials,” Hassabis says. “If AI systems prove they are able to unearth significant new knowledge and strategies in these domains too, the breakthroughs could be truly remarkable. We can’t wait to see what comes next.”
Hard to overstate how incredible this is. The general consensus was that it would take decades for a machine to master Go. A couple years later, the machine is retiring because it has so utterly dominated the best human players in the world. On to the next challenge, literally.
A bit more on AlphaGo’s dominant win from Paul Mozur:
“Last year, it was still quite humanlike when it played,” Mr. Ke said after the game. “But this year, it became like a god of Go.”
Perhaps just as notably, the victory took place in China, a rising power in the field of artificial intelligence that is increasingly seen as a rival to the United States. Chinese officials perhaps unwittingly demonstrated their conflicted feelings at the victory by software backed by a company from the United States, as they cut off live streams of the contest within the mainland even as the official news media promoted the promise of artificial intelligence.
The cutting off of the live stream is just silly.
Mr. Ke, who smiled and shook his head as AlphaGo finished out the game, said afterward that his was a “bitter smile.” After he finishes this week’s match, he said, he would focus more on playing against human opponents, noting that the gap between humans and computers was becoming too great. He would treat the software more as a teacher, he said, to get inspiration and new ideas about moves.
I like this mentality. If you can’t beat them, learn from them. In this case, “them” just happens to be a computer. But without question, that computer will make humans better at Go. The bigger question: what else will computers be able to teach humans? The possibilities are likely endless.
Continuing on the AI trend, here’s Steven Levy looking back at the time, 20 years ago, when another computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, beat a human at another game, chess:
The other was world champion chess player Garry Kasparov, whose concentration was intense enough to start a fire in a rainforest. His head hovered over the chessboard as if trying to identify which piece was threatening to betray him. His ankles shook. He was clearly under epic stress. Meanwhile, his putative opponent — a supercomputer housed elsewhere on the 35th floor of this midtown skyscraper — not only did not suffer stress, but did not even know what stress was.
In a 2009 interview with a chess publication, Illescas revealed that sometimes when Deep Blue instantly knew its next move, it would wait minutes before acting. When a chess computer stalls like this, it typically signals that the machine is having difficulty, or even has crashed. When Kasparov made his best move, the machine would play immediately, trying to give Kasparov the impression he had fallen into a trap. “This has a psychological impact as the machine becomes unpredictable, which was our main goal,” said Illescas.
By underplaying Deep Blue’s capabilities to Kasparov, IBM had tricked the human into underestimating it. A few days later, he described it this way: “Suddenly [Deep Blue] played like a god for one moment.” From that moment Kasparov had no idea what — or who — he was playing against. In what he described as “a fatalistic depression,” he played on, and wound up resigning the game.
For those keeping score at home, that’s two separate articles, in two separate decades, in which the best human player in the world at a complicated game compares a computer opponent to a god.
Kenneth Chang describing the incredible pictures sent back by NASA’s Juno mission:
The top and bottom of Jupiter are pockmarked with a chaotic mélange of swirls that are immense storms hundreds of miles across.
In measuring the gravitational field, scientists hoped to learn what lies at the center of Jupiter. Some predicted a rocky core, perhaps the size of Earth or several Earths. Others expected no rocky core, but hydrogen, the planet’s main constituent, all the way down. “Most scientists were in one camp or the other,” Dr. Bolton said, “and what we found is neither is true.” Instead, the data suggests a “fuzzy core,” one that is larger than expected, but without a sharp boundary, perhaps partly dissolved.
Fantastic post by my friend and former colleague, Eric Eldon. As he notes, modern news publications have swung far too global because they could, yet the need for local news endures. In an always-connected global world, this is oddly a niche, but an extremely important one due for a comeback.
Microsoft is planning to release a dongle that will plug into the new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop devices and provide USB-C support. It’s like any dongle you’d expect, and it simply slots into the Surface connector port on the device. “If you want to charge a device with a Type-C charger, you can. If you want to put data back and forth with a Type-C peripheral, you can,” says Panay.
While Panay jokes about USB-C and the dongle problem, he has some serious answers as to why it’s missing on both the new Surface Pro and Laptop. “The last thing I want is to take away the port they need today and tomorrow and the next day, to achieve a technology milestone where I then put a barrier in front of my customers,” says Panay. “A dongle or an adaptor or a cable that didn’t work because it was Thunderbolt or wasn’t Thunderbolt or I bought the wrong peripheral or I tried to charge it with my phone charger but it wasn’t enough to charge my device all day. Those are those moments.”
Look, I get it. And this is a “winning” thing to say. Yay, Microsoft, champion of the people. It’s unfortunately also the exact wrong mentality to have if you want to ever make progress in a reasonable timeframe. Rip off the bandaid. It has to hurt if it’s to heal. Etc.
“I’m gonna make Gretzky’s head bleed for super fan 99 over here.” So good.
The new 50th anniversary remix of Sgt. Pepper does sound fantastic. Like hearing it for the first time. Here’s more on how they did it.
A quick trip to Amazon Books in NYC…