Posts Tagged‘human’

From Our Ancestors To Today: The Changing Human Face, Visualized.

Ever wondered how we evolved to look the way we did today from our ancestors that lived millions of years ago? Wonder no longer:

I often find myself digging through our evolutionary history in order to find out why we have certain features or why we seem to lack certain adaptations that other species have. Whilst I don’t have a good explanation for everything that’s shown in the video above (had I more time I’d get my wife, a fledgling biologist, to comment on it) it is curious to see things like the progress of the nose and the reduction of the large forehead. It also struck me as to just how subtle some of the changes are from generation to generation and yet that gradual accumulation ends up with the face we all recognize.

The best thing about this video is how clear it makes the transition from our common ape ancestor to our current form as┬áhomo-sapiens. Whilst I know that simply showing someone a video like this won’t be enough to convince them that evolution is real (indeed if you don’t want to understand it there’s little I can do for you) it does illustrate the point quite aptly. It also demonstrates the idea that whilst we shared a common ancestor we evolved along a different path alongside them, addressing the “well if we evolved from apes why are there still apes” question quite nicely.

Using Technology to Control Others.

If there’s one notion that just doesn’t seem to die it’s that email is always a bane to someone’s productivity. Personally after using the Internet daily for the better part of 15 years I’ve gotten the whole email thing down pretty good and I don’t personally find it a distraction. Still no matter how many people I talk to they still seem to struggle with their inbox every day with people inundating them request after request or including them in a discussion that they just have to respond to. This is just one of the great many examples of people using technology to control someone else’s behaviour and it surprises me how many people still fall for it.

In the most traditional sense email was to be the electronic replacement for good old fashioned letters. In that sense they do carry a sense of urgency about them as when someone takes the time to write to you about something you can be sure that they want a response. However the low barrier to entry for writing an email as opposed to a real letter opened the floodgates for those who would not usually take the time to write and thus proceed to unleash their fury on unsuspecting victims. For myself I’ve noticed in a work place many people will often forego face to face contact with someone who’s mere meters away by using email instead, turning a 5 minute conversation into a 2 hour email ordeal that still doesn’t satisfy either party. This could also be due to my career being almost wholly contained within the public service, but I’ve seen similar behaviour at large private entities.

I think the problem many people have with electronic mediums is the urgency that they associate with it. When you get a real, physical letter from someone or some corporation there’s a real sense of “I have to do something about this” and that feeling translates into its electronic form. Seeing your inbox with dozens of emails left unread conveys that sense of leaving something important undone as each one of them is a call to your attention, begging for a response. The key is to recognise the low barrier of entry that electronic forms of communication have and to treat them as such. Of course simply ignoring your emails doesn’t solve the problem but establishing rules of engagement for people contacting you through various mediums ensures that you cut the unnecessary communications to a minimum, freeing yourself from their technological grasp.

I experienced this myself just recently when experimenting with “proper” Twitter use. The second I dropped my rules of engagement with the service was the second that I became a slave to it and the people on the other side. Sure this might be considered the norm when using Twitter but frankly the value I derive from the service is rendered moot when diverts my attention away from what I consider to be more valuable exploits. The same should be said for any form of communication you use, if the value you’re deriving or creating from using a communication method is less than the most optimal thing you could be doing in lieu of that, well maybe you should reconsider replying to those 50 emails that came in over lunch.

It’s gotten to the point where even whole companies are being founded on the idea of streamlining communication, like Xobni an email inbox searching tool. Google has also attempted to fix the email problem by developing the priority inbox which is a clever yet completely unnecessary tool. Whilst it does do a good job of showing me the emails I need to see I’d argue the problem is more that the ones it doesn’t promote simply did not need to be written. Thus we have a technological solution to a problem that’s entirely caused by its human users and would be better solved with a switch in mindset.

In the end it comes down to people letting themselves be controlled by something rather than the other way around. People know that if they want me to do something immediately they’ll come see me or phone me. If they want it done whenever I damn well feel like it they’ll send an email and no amount of important flags or all caps titles will change that. In the end it means people actually think about what they want before approaching me, meaning that the time I do actually spend communicating with them is productive and we can both get back to our priorities without too much interruption.

Technological Solutions to Human Problems.

It would seem as more time passes the more we are in control of the restrictions that have been placed on us by our ancestors. Natural Selection did a pretty good job of giving us a foundation of a large brain relative to our body mass, giving us a leg up on cognitive functions. Yet the more we progress we also find ourselves stuck with problems that are intrinsically human and as such will probably not be solved technologically.

The Turing test is a simple example of one such problem. In essence the test seeks to develop a computer program “intelligent” enough to fool a human observer into thinking it’s human. At its heart this is a human problem, communication with another being at a meaningful level. If you’ve ever tried to talk with a chat bot as if it were human you’ll notice some characteristics after a short period of time:

  • Lack of memory: Most chat bots won’t remember the conversation you had with them past the last sentence. This can lead to some silly conversational loops since they’ll ask you to clarify points they appeared to understand not two sentences earlier.
  • Can’t be taught: A lot of chat bots are based on Natural Language Processing where they’re using algorithms based on grammatical constructs and the sentence structure. Whilst you can use this to form some sort of idea about what the other party is saying you can’t teach this dog any tricks once you’ve programmed it. I had a lovely conversation with the “winner” of last years Turing test about regolith. After teaching it what it was I then asked it to describe it back to me. Needless to say it couldn’t, and asked me what I was talking about.
  • Spout nonsensical gibberish: If you hit one of the mid points in some of the NLP algorithms you’ll notice that most chat bots come back with a question which takes part of your sentence and regurgitates it back at you. If you said something like “Well I do enjoy opera whilst knee deep in peanut butter” they will come back with something like “What makes it that you enjoy opera whilst knee deep in peanut butter?”. Forgive the awkward grammar and you might be able to pass that off as normal conversation, but no one talks like that normally.

No program has yet completed this test successfully, although there are many good candidates.

The old saying “when all you have is a hammer all your problems look like nails” is something that applies here. Using technology to solve our day to day problems and better our lives is the hammer, and our problems arising from the human condition can all look like nails. Whilst I believe that no problem is above being solved, given enough time and resources, there are some things about life that are just so intrinsically human that technology will struggle to overcome them. Sometimes it is easier to adapt ourselves to overcome such problems; akin to a kind of artificial evolution.

So, what’s the point of trying then? Well I can put it down to two reasons. The first being our insatiable desire to overcome any obstacle that is placed in front of us. Routinely in our past we humans have been faced with problems that appeared monumental. Just on 100 years ago international travel took many months across the sea and was frought with danger. Now you can walk up to almost any airport and choose a country and be there in less than a day.

Secondly, on a time scale that we experience evolution makes negligible changes to us. We are at the stage where we have evolved to a point that if we want to go any further mother nature’s course will take thousands of generations for us to get there. If the human species is to survive and thrive in this barren universe we have to learn to master the world we exist in and then continue the process throughout the solar system and beyond. This is the only way to ensure that our race can survive through catastrophic events such as the loss of the entire earth.

Overall, we seek to overcome our shortcomings due to our innate desire to thrive.