Last night in my watercooler, MyFDL’s cmaukonen shared fascinating news from the New York Times — Google created a powerful neural network with the ability to recognize important or significant objects, and then set it loose on YouTube. The results? One of the most powerful computers ever created taught itself to recognize cats:
The neural network taught itself to recognize cats, which is actually no frivolous activity. This week the researchers will present the results of their work at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Google scientists and programmers will note that while it is hardly news that the Internet is full of cat videos, the simulation nevertheless surprised them. It performed far better than any previous effort by roughly doubling its accuracy in recognizing objects in a challenging list of 20,000 distinct items.
“We never told it during the training, ‘This is a cat,’ ” said Dr. Dean, who originally helped Google design the software that lets it easily break programs into many tasks that can be computed simultaneously. “It basically invented the concept of a cat.”
This story appeals to me on multiple levels. It’s obviously quite funny — as a friend of mine commented last night, was there ever any doubt that a sentient Internet would think mostly of cats? And of course, the next steps seem just as clear. First Google’s expensive computing array teaches itself to recognize cats, then it’ll teach itself to make LOLcats, or to create autotuned music videos about them.
Hidden in the mirth is the reminder that we’re on the brink of developing dramatic new technologies. New technologies bring new dangers — improved computer vision benefits many including repressive governments. Yet tools are tools — those who resist oppression can make use of them too. For example, new computer vision techniques might be used by Anonymous to analyze protest videos to identify repeat offenders among violent police.
And there’s never been a technology we’ve successfully put away — the genie does not go back into the bottle. Human curiosity and inquiry have few, if any brakes. We can’t stop the future, only do our best to shape it in ways that are ethical and equal for all.
In other words, as another Internet meme goes, “I, for one, welcome our new cat-loving computer overlords.”
This is tonight’s open thread. What’s on your mind?