Sandi at Kaleid Gallery

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At Kaleid Gallery tomorrow at First Friday in downtown San Jose, my wife Sandi will be having an art show featuring a wonderful new series of petrified coral pieces, atmospheric shapes, and enigmatic masks!

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Please drop in and see this fascinating show … and while you’re there, support your local artist and buy something!

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-the Centaur

Back at Work

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Briefly getting some edits in on SPECTRAL IRON before diving back into PHANTOM SILVER in April. That is all

-the Centaur

Not Ducking Questions, Just Working

Between a crash course in learning deep learning and full court press on THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, I’m far behind on far too many questions. So even though my good buddy Jim Davies just hit me with a comment on a post which I want to riff on in at least five blog posts, I’m afraid for the next few days I need to focus on getting caught up on THIRTY DAYS LATER.

Back to work.

-the Centaur

She is Sent

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Also on the note of resurrections, the latest version of JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE is winging its way back to the publisher. Apropos, that I sent this back at Easter: this book has been through so many drafts that I’m starting to feel dizzy. I expect there will be at least one more, though, so I’m prepared.

Lots more work to do. For now, though, back to SPECTRAL IRON.

-the Centaur

He is Risen

Ah, Lent has come to an end once again, with the happy season of Easter: the celebration of Jesus coming back from the dead – the transformation, as Father Ken, the priest at Saint Stephens in-the-Field said in his sermon today, of the cross as a political symbol of Roman terror to a religious symbol of Christian hope.

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the need for symbols of hope to lift us up in the darkest times, but if you are religious, you can see how that symbol could have special power – and if you are Christian, you can feel how that person’s special power makes him worthy of being a symbol of the life we want to live

This is the reason that Episcopal crosses tend to be empty – they’re not symbols of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, they’re symbols of his overcoming death, returning to life, and remaining with us in Spirit – as Father Ken said, Holy Spirit, with a capital S.

Happy Easter, everyone.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the children of St. Stephens in-the-Field, running towards the St. Stephens TARDIS before it departs for the annual field trip back to the first Easter day. (Axually, it’s an Easter egg hunt).

Conversations Ongoing

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So recently I posted an article about the ongoing debate on AI – something of very great interest to me – and my very good friend Jim Davies posted the following comment (getting it down to the gist):

So we have an interesting problem of customers wanting the ethical decisions [made by AI] to be a more public, open discussion, perhaps done by ethics experts, and the reality is that the programmers are doing the deciding behind closed doors. Is it satisfying for the rest of us to say merely that we’re confident that the engineers are thinking and talking about it all the time, deep in Google’s labs where nobody can hear them?

There are some interesting things to unpack – for example, whether there really are such things as ethics experts, and whether ethical decisions should be made by the public or by individuals.

Personally, as an ex-Catholic who once thought of going into the priesthood, and as an AI researcher who thinks about ethics quite carefully, I believe most so-called ethical experts are actually not (and for sake of argument, I’ll put myself in that same bin). For example, philosopher Peter Singer is often cited as an ethical expert, but several of his more prominent positions – e.g., opposing the killing of animals while condoning the killing of infants – undermine the sanctity of human life, a position he admits; so the suggestion that ethics experts should be making these decisions seems extraordinarily hazardous to me. Which experts?

Similarly, I don’t think ethical decisions in engineered systems should not be made by the public, but I do think safety standards should be set consistent with our democratic, constitutional process – by which I mean, ethical standards should reflect the will of the people being governed, consistent with constitutional safeguards for the rights of the minority. Car safety and airplane safety are good examples of this policy; as I understand the law, the government is not (in general) making actual decisions about how car makers and airplane makers need to meet safety standards – that is, not making decisions about which metals or strut designs keep a vehicle safe – but are instead creating a safety framework within which a variety of approaches could be implemented.

There’s a lot to discuss there.

But one thing that still bugs me about this is the idea that engineers are talking about this deep in corporate labs where no-one can hear them. I mean, they are having those conversations. But some of those same engineers are saying things publicly – Peter Norvig, a Director of Research at Google, has an article in the recent What to Think About Machines that Think, and some other Googler is writing this very blog post.

But my experience is that software engineers and artificial intelligence researchers are talking about this all the time – to each other, in hallways at GDC, over dinner, with friends – as far back as I can remember.

So I guess what’s really bothering me is, if we’re talking about it all the time, why does nobody seem to be listening? And why do people keep on saying that we’re not talking about it, or that we’re not thinking about it, or that we’re clearly not talking about it or thinking about it to the degree that the talking and thinking we’re not doing should be taken away from us?

-the Centaur

All the Transitions of Tic-Tac-Toe, Redux

What was supposed to be a quick exercise to help me visualize a reinforcement learning problem has turned into a much larger project, one which I’m reluctantly calling a temporary halt to: a visualization of all the states of Tic-Tac-Toe.

What I found is that it’s surprisingly hard to make this work: all the states want to pile on top of each other, and there are a few subtleties to representing it correctly. To make it work, I had to separately represent board positions – the typical X’es and Oh’s used in play – from game states, such as Start, X Wins, O Wins, and Stalemate.

The Mathematica for this is gnarly and a total hack; it probably could be made more efficient to process all 17,000+ transitions of the game, and I definitely need to think of a way to make each state appear in its own, non-overlapping position. But that will require more thought than my crude jitter function above, the time it takes to run each render is way too long to quickly iterate, and I have a novel to finish. I don’t want to get stuck in a grind against a game known for its stalemate.

Ugh. You can see the jumble there; it’s hard to see which transitions lead to X’s or O’s victory and which lead to stalemate. I have ideas on how to fix this, but I want my novel done more and first, dag nab it. So let me give you all the transitions of Tic-Tac-Toe in their full glory (22.8mb). I could say more about this problem – or I can say what I have, call it victory, and move on.

On to the novel. It’s going well.

-the Centaur

Departure Angle on Viewer

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I don’t know if I’ve used that title before, but I do know once again GDC has come to an end. The Game Developer’s Conference has treated me very well over the past … uhh … darn near 20 years or so, and every year I think I’m going to do a trip report. And every year I don’t. But this year, I do know I’m going to at least give a brief retrospective.

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For those that don’t know, the Game Developer’s Conference is one of the largest conventions for computer game developers in the world – it might be the largest, but on the one hand I don’t have Internet yet, and on the other hand just because it’s huge doesn’t mean it’s the biggest. (I used to think San Diego Comic-Con was the biggest media convention, but Comiket is 3 times its size).

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In general, I find the biggest bang for the buck at GDC is the first two official days – Monday and Tuesday, the tutorials and summits. The next biggest bang for the buck is ad-hoc meetings between people – just getting together with people in the industry and chewing the fat. But, and this is the question I once had, how do you do that if you don’t know anybody?

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That’s why on the next three days they have Roundtables – more informal discussions aimed at people in your specific area. For game AI programmers, there are the AI Roundtables hosted by Neil Kirby, but I’ve been to other roundtables as well, and they’re a great way to both learn about the field and to meet people of all different levels.

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Now, the people you meet at a Roundtable may not be your best friends the first time that they meet you, but if you come back again and again – show up, be nice, and try to contribute – you’ll build relationships that are enduring in time. For AI game programmers, there’s the Game AI Programmer’s Guild and some associated dinners; there will be one for your area too.

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But beyond the first two days, there’s two or three main draws to the conference for me. There are talks, of course, and some would say that those are the real meat of GDC – we wouldn’t have a reason to come here to network if there wasn’t something we’re here for in the first place, whether it’s a product announcement or a technical talk …

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… or an unexpected bit of wisdom, such as the story of the creator of Diablo, who turned down an offer from a friend of a friend to “just let me use that empty room in the back as my office. I’ll give you ten percent of my company.” Diablo was in crunch time, so he told him “get lost kid” … not knowing he was turning down $40 million dollars when Hotmail sold the following year for $400M.

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Beyond the talks, there’s the show floor, which is so full of interesting things that you can’t begin to compress it into an easy tale; the pickings are better in some years than others, but you’ll still see amazing stuff.

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And … some more inexplicable stuff. I bet you didn’t know cloud computing involved actual clouds, but they had one:

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Finally, there’s the GDC store, where you can get swag of all sorts, from GDC gear (which people often see me wearing) to game gear to books of all sorts.

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For someone who believes the future of books is bright, I have to admit the pickings seem leaner each year …

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… but I still found some awesome books directly related to my area, and as much as we want ebooks to be everywhere, I just moments ago was chatting with someone at work who turned down a free PDF in favor of ordering a physical book on Amazon, because, like me, he found it easier to read that way.

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Finally, if you’re not local, GDC is a great chance to experience a new city. San Francisco is great, Union Square is a short walk, and there are many restaurants and coffeehouses and sights and parks that you can experience.

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It’s better if you can experience it with friends too – so make time for your friends while they’re in town.

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-the Centaur