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Watercooler: Cat Futures

6:00 pm in Watercooler by Kit OConnell

Meow, y’all.

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?

My First Visit to Occupy Austin

2:00 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Last Sunday was my first visit to Occupy Austin.

This post is much later than I wanted it to be because I have been struggling with my health. I’ll open here because part of the reason I identify with this movement is that my voice is a disenfranchised one as a disabled person. I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition closely related (or overlapping with) chronic fatigue syndrome. It is not well understood, but between severe pain in my muscles and connective tissue, and frequent intense fatigue and insomnia I am unable to hold down a normal job. I have managed to eke out a small living as a freelance writer, but I have no health insurance, and no safety net if my health takes a turn for the worse. I feel strongly for this idea of the 99% — in a just society, basic needs like food, shelter and medical care would be considered a human right.

My health has kept me from attending a Occupy encampment or event before Sunday. But on Saturday night, 38 peaceful protesters were arrested at City Hall — some over refusal to take down a food table based on last minute regulations imposed without oversight by the Austin city manager, but others were directly targeted by police for their involvement in the movement. A march was announced to join the vigil at the county jail demanding release of these political prisoners. I knew I had to join.

Much has been said about the protests and whether those involved have valid reasons. Though the protesters have many diverse issues they have come together over, to me at this point the most important reason is to stand up for our right to assemble. In childhood, teachers taught me that the right for the people to speak up and assemble to demand a redress of grievances is one of the most fundamental things that defines being an American citizen. And yet now these 38 peaceful activists — along with a small but notable number of arrests since — are banned from City Hall for one year.

That’s right, a building that is the hub of their city, that their tax dollars pay for everytime they purchase anything in stores — yet if they return they face rearrest and even jail time. Because Austin is ‘cool’ and ‘weird’, our cops won’t go in with the tear gas. Instead they threaten us with dozens of tiny papercuts until our movement will bleed to death. We need to stand up and say this is not right — that we have a right to speak.

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