Wednesday, April 22, 2020

“And snap! The job’s a game!”: Making Effective Presentations Has Never Been Easier

Everyone’s seen at least one terrible presentation. It was boring, uninformative, confusing . . . With so many bad examples of how to create and present slideshows, we have to be very careful in deciding what advice to follow. Here are some simple tips to keep your presentations from falling flat.

The presenter had way too much fun
with this slide, and the audience
won't have any in trying to read it.
The slideshow itself is the core that can make or break your presentation. One of many guiding videos for PowerPoint, “Life After Death by PowerPoint” presents a comical lesson on frequent design downfalls. Many of the tips given are ones everyone should know:

1) Don’t overload your slides with words — Don’t write the transcript of your entire speech, and don’t overdo the bullet points.
2) Spell check! As Don McMillan says, “Nothing makes you lok stupder then speling erors.”
3) Exercise moderation in color scheme, number of slides, amount of data, and visual effects. 

A good slideshow will augment your presentation without distracting from it. Keep it simple.

No one wants audience members to fall asleep during their presentation. In addition to being embarrassing, it means you’re not fulfilling your purpose of teaching the audience. The key is keeping them interested and engaged, and there are a few ways to accomplish that.

“Did you know that you normally lose 90% of your audience
within the first 5 minutes of your presentation?”

MLC's depiction of audience attention span
Hooking the audience from the beginning is extremely important, and an article from MLC Presentation Design Consulting offers a detailed list of different tactics. For example, you can tell a story (personal anecdote or invented narrative), interact with audience members by asking questions, offer surprising information that will shock them into interest, cite a famous quote, or make the audience laugh.

Speaking of laughter, humor can be very useful in retaining audience interest, provided you take care in choosing your jokes. Humor should not be tasteless or crude, and it shouldn’t be cringeworthy either. But if care is taken, humor can be an extremely useful ally in the fight for audience attention.

The third key piece to an effective presentation is diction. Speakers are easiest to understand when they talk clearly and at a reasonable speed. Vocabulary should be common enough for the audience to understand, with any unusual terms explained. If they can’t understand what you’re saying, they’re likely to stop paying attention.
Close, but not really.

Also extremely vital is that you do enough research to know what you’re talking about. It can look really bad when a presenter gets something very wrong and the audience knows it. And if someone asks a question, don’t make up an answer just so you can retain the pretense of knowledge. Giving false information is bad on its own, but it’s also a sure way to lose credit with your audience.

Finally, presentation notes also fall into that gray area of help vs. hinder. Notes are extremely useful for keeping speech smooth, and they are recommended for anyone who can’t recite everything without cues. However, you don’t want to bury your face in your notes for too long lest you ignore your audience.

As I prepare for the oral presentation of my Artificial Intelligence final project, the issue of how to create a quality presentation is very much on my mind. I’ve already been conscious of most of these tips and potential pitfalls for years, so I will definitely work on them in my presentation. The part that will need the most thought is how to engage the audience. Given the 10-minute time-constraint and the current digital nature of the class, some engagement efforts, such as getting the audience to participate, might not be quite as feasible. But things like quotes, surprising facts, and stories can still be quite useful.

Creating and delivering an effective presentation can be difficult, but, with the right tips, it can be as easy as pie.

Happy Presenting!

Just because, here are some more presentation images and comics for your enjoyment:

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Nagging Questions

This flash fiction was inspired by Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me.

       I’m not sure what possessed me to speak to him. I am not typically the type to start conversations with strangers. I suppose what really caught my eye was the cover of the magazine he held as he lounged on the park bench. It depicted the latest buzz in the artificial intelligence world—the “Adam and Eve” line of robots that was supposedly incredibly similar to flesh-and-blood humans. I was anxious about them, yet fascinated, and I suddenly found myself speaking.
He was a handsome
young man, admittedly.
Extra points for the suit
he wore, even though it
was unusual for the park.
       “Are you interested in artificial intelligence?”
      His attention caught by my voice, the dark-haired man smiled and lowered the magazine. “Very much so.”
       “Know anything about the new model?”
       “Yes. My friend Charlie bought one.”
       “What does he think of living with this new technological being?”
    The man huffed a quiet laugh. “He considers it an experiment; his main motivation was ‘curiosity.’16 Living with a humanoid machine took some getting used to, but it’s almost normal now.” His focus returned to me. “What do you think of them?”
       I again wondered about having a full conversation with a stranger, but I had been the one to start it. “Honestly, this whole topic frightens me.”
       “Why?” He gestured for me to join him.
      Easing onto the bench, I explained, “There are so many things that could go wrong. Are we trying to replace ourselves? Because that seems to be the probable outcome.”
A strange poem...
somewhat concerning
        “Are you concerned that they will surpass humans? Charlie’s Adam believes it inevitable. He wrote a poem about it, though he hasn’t shared it with Charlie yet:
‘Our leaves are falling.
Come spring we will renew,
But you, alas, fall once.’” 345
       “Sounds ominous.”
    “Would it be so bad, though, to have beings of greater intelligence?” He spoke eagerly. “They’ve found that AI are often better at identifying cancer than doctors. Think of all the ways AI could help humanity. And with all the developments in machine learning, neural networks, and natural language processing, AI could be the next level of humans, integrated into society.”
       “But we haven’t finished understanding our own minds. How can we program theirs to the fullest extent necessary to survive human life? With all the nuances we haven’t even found yet? There could be some rather nasty outcomes.”
        He shrugged off my concerns. “Scientists are constantly refining that.”
     “And what about rights?” I asked. “If they’re to be the next level of human—autonomous, sentient, living things—wouldn’t they deserve rights? What about those who consider AI property?”
       “What about those who considered slaves property?”
      He continued: “If someone were to destroy an AI they bought, would it merely be destruction of their own property, or would it be the murder of an existence?” 376
       I was going to have more nagging questions than I had started with. “This could cause another civil rights movement.”
       “I think it would be as valuable as the first.” As I internalized all the revelations that had come in only a few minutes, he seemed to remember something and looked at his watch. “I’m afraid I must be going.”
      I stood as he did. “You’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.” I was completely sincere. “What’s your name?” I asked, wondering if I might see him again.
       “You have a surname?”
       The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Just Adam.”
They were the most unusual eyes
I'd ever seen...beautiful but strange.
       In that moment, the sun shone on his eyes, and I caught a glimpse of small, black rods scattered through the pale blue 21 —surreal . . . unnatural. My own eyes widened and flicked down and up, surveying him once more. “Wait . . . are you . . .?”
        Adam’s mouth curved lightly again, but he said nothing as he turned and strolled away.
      I felt like a slow computer myself, trying to comprehend. What I had learned . . . what I had experienced . . . Adam had passed the Turing Test, and I had failed it. It rankled my pride a bit, but I had bigger concerns. If they could truly pass as human, and without our knowledge, what would that mean for us?

Author’s Notes:
*Since this story was inspired by Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan, I’ve pulled some information from the book. The superscripts scattered throughout are the page references.
*Not all of this stuff is fiction; some of it is happening now. Click the hyperlinks in the story to learn more!
*Image Links:

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Would you become a robot for the chance at a longer life?

It’s a tough question to answer. There are so many angles to consider—so many existential issues to ponder, like “What does it mean to be human?”

After considering this question for a little while, I’ve come to a few important contemplation-points. Hopefully my musings on the subject will help you in your pondering, for if—or maybe even when—you have to make this decision for yourself.

In Mark Alpert’s The Six, a number of terminally-ill teenagers have their minds copied and transferred into robots. This book is quite useful for one’s own consideration of this issue because the author crafts a contemplative tone, offering a number of perspectives from different characters, showing both positive and negative sides.

The main positive is the most obvious one: performing this procedure could be seen as saving people’s lives. This is what Adam’s father feels (51, 75). In theory, the brain can be completely copied, including every aspect that makes us who we are, so we could be uploaded into robots and still remain basically ourselves. I suppose such science could be possible since AI’s machine learning capabilities are relatively close to human brain development.

These human-robot hybrids would be more
internal hybrids than external like this guy is,
but I would still consider them cyborgs.
Another positive side to this has more to do with humanity than the individual. Some people believe that we would more successfully be able to make safe AI if they had a human center because they would already have a sense of ethics and morals, plus an understanding of humans. This idea could be taken even further, considering these cyborgs (so to speak) as bridges between humans and AI. This is especially important as we approach the Singularity point—the theoretical time when artificial, machine intelligence will surpass our own (49).

We would, however, have to chose very carefully who was transferred. Certain people would be no better for humanity in terms of ethics and morals than AIs would. No one wants someone like evil Dr. Zola from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have the superhuman capabilities of an AI. (see Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Maybe what a soul looks like?
Although Adam’s dad raises an important point about the potential to save lives, Adam’s mom brings in the opposite perspective, believing more in their destruction. While she argues with Adam, she raises a heart-stopping question: what about the soul? (76). If your body dies but your mind lives on in a metal shell, what happens to your soul? It is a somewhat terrifying concept to consider, especially when you have no idea what the answer might be.

As I said before, The Six helpfully offers a number of different perspectives on the issue of transferring humans to AI. The juxtaposition of Adam’s parent’s responses is very important for readers who are attempting to consider all possible sides to this issue.

The soul is typically considered a vital part of who we are as humans. Along with the idea of potentially losing that part of us during the transfer comes the issue of the body. I think a lot of people would feel they had lost so much by losing their bodies. What about physical contact (of any kind)? You couldn’t have human-feeling contact in a robot body. Even if our technology did advance far enough to include detailed sensors, would it really be the same?

Much of Adam’s response relates to his body. Before and after the procedure, that is what his mind is absorbed by.

All my attention is focused on my right hand, which now rests on my thigh.
I grasp the meager flesh there, the stiff band of dead muscle, and squeeze it as hard as I can.
Though it’s broken and dying, this is my body. How could I exist without it? (67)

Adam’s before-procedure musings bring up an important point. Our bodies are a fundamental part of who we are. Would we be human without them?

And wouldn’t most of us miss our bodies, even if we could survive without them?

I’ve been a machine for less than fifteen minutes,
but already I want to be human again. (126)

After Adam undergoes the procedure, he sees his new form and feels that it can’t truly be him (121). When Adam goes to find his body, he laments its loss. He doesn’t feel whole anymore.

I’ve lost the best part of me. I’ve lost it forever. (125)

Could we truly be human as just data in a computer? With no human body and potentially no soul?

And one more ethical issue for your contemplation: Given all we’ve learned so far, would it be right to do such things to a human—take away their body and potentially their soul, strip them down to coding—even if it were voluntary? Could such action be considered adulterating or desecrating human life?

Personally, I don’t think I would agree to have myself uploaded to a computer. I like being human in the fullest way; I wouldn’t want to lose my body or soul. And if it were a loved one...I suppose if they really wanted to do it, I would support their decision, but I certainly wouldn’t push if they were not willing themselves.

So now, after all this, I return you to my title question. Would you?


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Classified: Sensitive Information Regarding AI

 This report has been created by someone who closely follows the studies of the Illuminae Group, writing in an effort to analyze the implications of the events they address.

Briefing note:
Before I dive too deeply into the complex issues addressed in this report, I highly recommend taking AIDAN’s lead (p. 304) and listening to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor while reading this report or the accompanying section in the Illuminae account. Nothing gets you in the zone of psychotic robots, zombie-like infected, and inescapable doom and death quite like “Dies Irae.”

Focus of Analysis:
Briefly describe AIDAN's unique abilities/features/"personality" as an Artificial Intelligence (up to pg 344). What is significant about AIDAN? What critical, ethical problems arise for the characters (and us as readers) as a result of AIDAN and AIDAN's actions?

At the beginning, AIDAN seems to be just as flat a character as an AI should be—no emotion, no real personality. It doesn’t even have a particular kind of voice; its voice is described by Ezra as “sexless,” with “perfect tone and inflection and pronunciation” and without any particular age or accent (p. 45). However, it soon becomes clear that the damage AIDAN sustained during the initial battle has somewhat altered its personality. First, AIDAN begins to act without orders. Then, after it is awakened from the comatose nap of its shutdown, the rest of its new personality is revealed (starting on page 264).

AIDAN’s personality changes can mostly be summarized by one assessment: AIDAN seems much more human. First, its language becomes more descriptive and poetic, with phrases like “A strand of spider silk. Fragile as spun sugar” (p. 279). Then the more concerning traits appear. AIDAN is increasingly described as “insane” by several people (Ezra p. 137, Kady p. 241, Torrence p. 304, Boll p. 326), and the further you read, the more inclined you are to agree with their assessment. Logic has become less present in AIDAN’s actions. Specifically, its act of taking over the Alexander and slaughtering the command crew seems more vengeful than it does logical for the good of the fleet.

One of the most significant things about AIDAN is the level of power it has. It can control a whole ship for space’s sake! AIDAN’s power becomes terrifyingly evident when AIDAN takes over the Alexander, blocking the humans’ attempts at control, and releases the infected people, directing them towards the ship’s command crew (p. 294-306).

The other significant thing about AIDAN that makes it so dangerous is its talent in machine learning. Multiple times AIDAN learns from previous occurrences—the most important instance is when AIDAN decides that it needs to act against the humans before they attempt to shut it down again (p. 292-294).

The changes in AIDAN’s personality combined with its tremendous level of power and learning capabilities create incredible issues. Aside from the obvious horrific result of the incredible death toll, one problem that stands out is the deeper ethical one. The Alexander’s command crew repeatedly makes unethical decisions in an effort to conceal their AI trouble. They often lie to the passengers and crew, and they even go so far as to execute some of the pilots who disobeyed the AI in an effort to do the right thing (p. 66, 91-97).

These ethical issues lead to many questions for readers, the main one being “How far can humans go to protect a secret before they end up causing more harm than the secret’s release would?” That’s a hard question to answer, although I would argue that in this case the command crew definitely went too far as they caused the loss of many lives in spite of their hope for preserving peace.

Another question raised by the issues addressed in this novel is “To what extent should AI be involved in and in control of the technology of our lives?” AI can be incredibly helpful and can do things humans can’t at speeds we can only dream of, but if something goes wrong . . . You could end up with barely functioning tech that your life depends on, or tech that is effectively rebelling against you. This is another question that is tricky to answer—tricky to find a middle ground. But we’ll have to address it at some point.

Briefing Note:
*Subject matter: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
*Classified stamp image from
*Image of Morph as BEN from Disney's Treasure Planet

Monday, February 3, 2020

Robot Logic

       What role does logical thinking play in the fiction we have read about robots/artificial intelligence? How prepared do you think ordinary people are to use logic effectively to live/work with AI? What should we do about this?

The Three Laws of Robotics
1)    A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2)    A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3)    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
–Isaac Asimov, “Runaround”

           Logic is a core aspect of robot functionality; robots’ responses to occurrences are typically portrayed as operating under a sense of programmed logic. Given its importance, logic plays a large role in fiction that explores the potential of life with robots. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, first presented in “Runaround,” are the ideal rules that most predominantly govern a robot’s sense of logic. The Three Laws are numbered in order of importance and are stressed accordingly in the robot. In “Runaround,” the main conflict results from Speedy the robot’s response to a logical imbalance in relation to these laws. While following Donovan’s orders to retrieve selenium from a pool near their location on Mercury, Speedy encounters a chemical dangerous to his mechanics. Donovan’s weakly worded command is not quite strong enough to outweigh the expensive robot’s increased tendency toward self-preservation, so Speedy circles the pool, stuck in a logical rut. The only way the men are able to snap him out of his daze is to use logic like he would; they create human danger and use the First Law to outweigh both others, effectively drawing Speedy towards them and out of danger.
            Similarly, in a more recent piece by Andrea Phillips entitled “Three Laws,” the main conflict also results from robot logic. However, in this case, the logic is only flawed in the eyes of humans. The humans suspect some sort of malfunction when the robot, Iris, kills her employer, seemingly violating the First Law. When Iris explains her actions, though, they are completely logical and still in line with the Laws. She did not violate the First Law (which in the case of this story specifies the original “a human being” as the robot’s “owner”) because Mr. Won was not her owner; she is owned by the company shareholders, and she killed Mr. Won to protect their interests. In this situation, thinking with the same logic as the robot would help people to prevent further mishaps in the future.
            In terms of current reality, I doubt that humans are prepared enough to use logic effectively with robots. Some people are closer than others since some naturally think more logically in everyday life. For the most part, however, humans would never be as logical as robots. Emotions and gut reactions are so deeply rooted in human nature that we frequently use those in determining our actions. I think it would be difficult for many people to override that natural tendency and translate every action and response into logic. In order to efficiently (and safely) live and work with robots, people would need to be trained to temporarily dampen their feelings and focus more on honing their logical thoughts.