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White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

Trial Highlights Venture Capital Firm's Treatment of Women

A sex discrimination lawsuit brought by Ellen Pao, a former junior partner of the venture capital giant Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, went to trial in San Francisco this week. Pao, who is now the interim CEO of Reddit, alleges that the firm illegally passed her over for promotion, excluded her from key meetings and retaliated against her when she ended an affair with a colleague. The firm claims poor performance led to her failure to advance. We discuss the trial and gender politics in Silicon Valley.

In Bold Move, FCC Chairman Calls for Tough Rules to Protect Net Neutrality

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday announced plans to regulate high-speed Internet as a public utility, in what he calls the "strongest open Internet protections ever proposed." The FCC still needs to approve the changes, but the new rules would require Internet service providers to treat all content equally. We'll discuss what the regulations would mean for companies, consumers and the future of the Internet.

PBS NewsHour

That dress isn’t blue or gold because color doesn’t exist

Scottish musician Caitlin McNeill and her band were arguing over what color this dress is. She posted the photo on Tumblr
         and the internet quickly divided into two camps: those who saw blue and black and those who saw white and gold. Image courtesy
         Tumblr/swiked

Scottish musician Caitlin McNeill and her band have been arguing over the color of this dress: is it blue and black or white and gold? Image courtesy Tumblr/swiked

Color scientists already have a word for it: Dressgate. No surprise to those of us whose minds were collectively blown by the dress that’s blue and black to some, and white and gold to others (though frankly kind of ugly in any color.)

More surprising is the power it holds. It raises, on the one hand, some fascinating scientific questions: What is this thing called color? And how in the world can two people see one color so differently? (We’ll get back to that.)

But there’s a third, more philosophical, question at play here: Why are people so fascinated by this dress? And what caused it to spin so virally out of control?

Beau Lotto, professor of neuroscience at University College London, thinks he knows the answer. We inherently think we see the world objectively, as it really is, he said. The photo of this dress reveals the fallacy of that kind of thinking. It makes us question how we see, not just the dress, but everything.

He calls it “seeing yourself see.” Say you see the dress as white and gold — like me — but you know that somebody else, Taylor Swift, for example, perceives it as blue and black.

There should be an embedded item here. Please visit the original post to view it.

At that moment, the brain is doing something remarkable, Lotto said. “It’s entertaining two realities that are mutually exclusive. It’s seeing one reality, but knowing there’s another reality. So you’re becoming an observer of yourself. You’re having tremendous insight into what it is to be human. And that’s the basis of imagination.”

This hideous little dress, it seems, is tapping into questions that extend far beyond the dress itself and have far greater implications. If two people see color so differently, what does that mean for how we perceive each other. What does that mean for how we perceive ourselves?

But back to color.

“A color only exists in your head,” says neuroscientist Beau Lotto. “There’s such a thing as light. There’s such a thing as energy. There’s no such thing as color.”
Color is, quite literally, a figment of your imagination, Lotto said. It only exists in your head. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College, explained it this way: “Color is this computation that our brains make that enables us to extract meaning from the world.”

Of course, if you want to get technical about it, there are receptors called cones in our eyes that act like little color channel sensors. One cone processes blue, another processes red, another green. An elaborate network of sophisticated cells in the brain compares the activity of these cones, and then signals from our brain produce the impression of colors. This system is working furiously, all the time.

“For me, the amazing thing about it is, we have all this circuitry that does all this stuff, and we’re not aware of any of it,” Conway said.

But there’s something else. How we see an object has everything to do with how that object is illuminated. Our brains have adapted to see white as white whether it’s under harsh fluorescent light or soft daylight, blue light or yellow light. That’s called color constancy, said Anya Hurlbert, professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University. It’s something that Monet played with all the time, painting the color of haystack shadows blue, for example, to compensate for the light that was illuminating them.

“Most don’t see that blue,” Conway said. “They discount it.” Most people perceive it as black.

Humans mostly see the world in the context of natural daylight, which is blue and orange — blue from the sky and orange from the sun. Those natural daylight colors are the context for everything else we perceive. They set the scene. They don’t tell us the color of objects. They just illuminate those objects.

Then, as we look at an object, our brain automatically gets rid of the blue and orange to make room for the new color, Conway said.

Normally, our brains are adept at compensating for this changing light.

But enter the dress.

It’s difficult to tell what color is illuminating the dress, which may be what’s making our systems go haywire when we look at it.

Our brain tells us the dress is white even though it actually appears pink. But because we can see that the entire room
         is shaded by hues of pink light, our brains are adept at compensating for this changing light." Photo by Getty Images

Our brain tells us the dress is white even though it actually appears pink. But because we can see that the entire room is shaded by hues of pink light, our brains are adept at compensating for this changing light. Photo by Getty Images

The room, Hurlbert said, is under one light, a yellow light, but the dress is in a shadow. Since the dress is not being illuminated by that yellow light, it appears blue-ish. Some brains compensate for the changes in light — other brains don’t.

This dress, Lotto said, “seems to be sitting at a stage where it’s bistable. It is, by definition, ambiguous. It could be spinning one way, but it’s almost, just as likely, spinning the other way as well.”

If you turn your computer monitor down, you might see it more as a dark grey and blue, if you turn your monitor up, it looks more gold and white. If you tilt your phone, you’ll again see it differently, because you’re changing the amount of contrast.

Color is perception, and this picture drives that home. It makes us consider something altogether nonintuitive: that there’s no such thing as white or gold or blue or black.

“A color only exists in your head,” Lotto said. “There’s such a thing as light. There’s such a thing as energy. There’s no such thing as color.”

The post That dress isn’t blue or gold because color doesn’t exist appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Teaching computers how to play Atari better than humans

spaceinvaders_atari

Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

GWEN IFILL: Next: Playing video games might seem like child’s play.

But, as Tom Clarke of Independent Television News reports, it’s also at the frontier of artificial intelligence.

TOM CLARKE: It was the late 1970s, and for the first generation of video gamers, Atari was king. By the standards of the day, the graphics were mind-blowing, the sound out of this world.

And the selection of games just went on and on and on.

Ah.

Compared to the video games of today, Atari looks pretty clunky, but the games are still quite difficult to play, especially if you haven’t picked one up for 30 years, like me. But it’s that exact combination of simple graphics, but quite challenging game play, that has attracted the cutting edge of artificial intelligence researchers back to the 1970s.

This version of “Space Invaders” isn’t being played by a person, but a system of computer algorithms that is learning how to play it just by looking at the pixels on the screen. It may not sound like it, but it’s something of a breakthrough, the work of one of the finest young minds in A.I. research, North Londoner Demis Hassabis.

DEMIS HASSABIS, Vice President, DeepMind Technologies: We don’t actually give any clues to the system about what it is supposed to do in the game, what it’s controlling, how it gets a score, what’s valuable in the game, what the right strategies are. It has to learn all those things from first principles.

TOM CLARKE: Hassabis shows me his system playing the classic paddle game “Breakout.”

DEMIS HASSABIS: So now, about two hours in, now it can play the game pretty much as good as any human, professional human player could, even when it’s coming at very fast angles. And then we thought, well, that’s pretty good, but what would happen if we just left it playing for another couple of hours?

And then it did this unexpected thing where it found the optimal strategy was to dig a tunnel around the side and send the ball behind the wall, which is obviously the optimal strategy and the safest strategy.

TOM CLARKE: Out of 49 completely different Atari games tested, the system played more than half of them better than a human, a simple demonstration of what A.I. researchers call general nontrivial intelligence.

DEMIS HASSABIS: This is what the essence of intelligence is, is finding structure and meaning in your perception inputs, and then being able to act intelligently to make a plan using that model of the world.

TOM CLARKE: And that’s what this is?

DEMIS HASSABIS: And that’s what the system does, yes.

But it’s important to discuss some of the risks and make sure we’re aware of those. And it’s decades and decades away before we will have anything that is powerful enough to be a worry, but we should be discussing that and beginning that conversation now.

TOM CLARKE: They have been around since the 1970s, and the machines haven’t taken over yet, but, humanity, watch this space.

The post Teaching computers how to play Atari better than humans appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Photo essay: How to swim safely with sharks

One Ocean Diving program's safety diver and shark behavior expert Ocean Ramsey swims with a shark in Hawaii. Photo
         courtesy of ©juansharks and ©oneoceandiving.com

One Ocean Diving program’s safety diver and shark behavior expert Ocean Ramsey swims with a shark in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of ©juansharks and ©oneoceandiving.com

Ocean Ramsey wants you to know that sharks are vastly misunderstood. They’re scavengers, and rarely confrontational, said the biologist and scuba instructor, who has studied the animals for 15 years and leads cageless shark diving expeditions off the coast of Oahu. The ocean region is home to Sandbar, Galapagos, silky and tiger sharks, and scalloped hammerheads.
A tourist swims with a sandbar shark on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh
         Gentry/Reuters

A tourist swims with a sandbar shark on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

The expeditions, run by the organization One Ocean Diving, are a form of eco-tourism. On the water, Ramsey educates each three-person team of tourists on conservation efforts, shark behavior and safe swimming procedures. Before swim fins touch water, the swimmers must know how to read basic shark body language and how to behave in a way that’s non-threatening to the sometimes-dangerous animals.

Sharks, she said, are not particularly interested in human blood — they’re drawn more to dying or wounded fish. But instructors never get complacent with the wild sea animals.

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

She also describes the personalities of individual sharks, many of whom she knows well. Bully, for example, a sandbar shark, is known for pushing around the other sandbars. Ramsey describes him as endearing, and a bit of a camera hog.

“We know all of the sharks by distinguishable markings, ID numbers and nicknames,” Ramsey said. “So it’s kind of cool to talk about their individual characters with people.”

Shark ecologist Ocean
         Ramsey gives a pre-dive briefing before taking tourist on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015.
         Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Dive instructor Ocean Ramsey gives a pre-dive briefing before taking tourist on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Key to their efforts is conservation, as the shark population has taken a nosedive in the region. Conservationists estimate that roughly 100 million sharks are being killed each year for shark finning – a rate unsustainable for a species with a slow growth and reproductive cycle. One of the main culprits of this phenomenon is shark fin soup, a popular Chinese elitist dish often served at weddings or special events.

Sharks play a vital role in the ecosystem, and losing them could upset its delicate balance. They consume weak, dying and injured fish, slowing the spread of disease, Ramsey said.

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey surfaces after swimming with sharks on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February
         16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Safety diver and shark behavior expert Ocean Ramsey surfaces after swimming with sharks on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

“Even a decade ago, I used to see three times more sharks than I see now,” Ramsey said.
Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo
         by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey, center, guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015.
         Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Dive instructor Ocean Ramsey guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist and boat captain Juan Oliphant signals to tourists that a lot of sharks are approaching them on a cageless
         shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist and boat captain Juan Oliphant signals to tourists that a lot of sharks are approaching them on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

GoPro footage of the cageless shark dive shot by Juan Oliphant

The post Photo essay: How to swim safely with sharks appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Artificial intelligence program teaches itself to play Atari games — and it can beat your high score


Artificial intelligence program deep Q-network teaches itself to play classic Atari games like Space Invaders. Video courtesy Google DeepMind with permission from Square Enix Ltd.

A new artificial intelligence program from Google DeepMind has taught itself how to play classic Atari 2600 games. And it can probably beat your high score.

Deep Q-network, or DQN, can play 49 Atari games “right out of the box,” says Demis Hassabis, world-renowned gamer and founder of DeepMind. Overall, it performed as well as a professional human video game tester, according to a study published this week in Nature. On more than half of the games, it scored more than 75 percent of the human score.

This isn’t the first game-playing A.I. program. IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. In 2011, an artificial intelligence computer system named Watson won a game of Jeopardy against champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Watson and Deep Blue were great achievements, but those computers were loaded with all the chess moves and trivia knowledge they could handle, Hassabis said in a news conference Tuesday. Essentially, they were trained, he explained.

But in this experiment, designers didn’t tell DQN how to win the games. They didn’t even tell it how to play or what the rules were, Hassabis said.

“(Deep Q-network) learns how to play from the ground up,” Hassabis said. “The idea is that these types of systems are more human-like in the way they learn. Our brains make models that allow us to learn and navigate the world. That’s exactly the type of system we’re trying to design here.”

To test DQN’s ability to learn and adapt, Hassabis and his team at DeepMind tried Atari 2600 games from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Atari games had the right level of complexity for the DQN software, Hassabis said. The software agent had access to the last four images on the screen and its score.

By “looking” at the pixels on the screen and moving the controls, DQN taught itself to play over the course of several weeks, said Vlad Mnih, one of the authors on the paper, at Tuesday’s conference. It’s a process called “deep reinforcement learning,” Mnih said, where the computer learns through trial and error — the same way humans and other animals learn.

“We are trying to explore the space of algorithms for intelligence. We have one example of (intelligence) — the human brain,” Hassabis said. “We can be certain that reinforced learning is something that works and something humans and animals use to learn.”

Sometimes it learned to beat the games in ways the researchers didn’t expect. In Breakout, deep Q-network figured out how to tunnel through the wall, something the research team hadn’t thought of.


Video courtesy Google DeepMind with permission from Atari Interactive Inc.

But DQN failed at other games, particularly ones that required planning and foresight, like Ms. PacMan, Mnih said. And DQN can’t transfer what it learned from one situation to the next, Hassabis said. That’s something even toddlers can do, he added.

“One of the issues is that it learns to play by pressing keys randomly, then figuring out high scores and what leads to that. In some games that strategy doesn’t work,” Mnih said.

Google DeepMind is sticking with deep Q-networks video game training for now, moving up to Nintendo games from the 1990s, Hassabis said. Eventually he would love for the software agent to crack more complicated games like Starcraft and Civilization.

Video games may be the testing ground, but this technology has real-world applications, Hassabis said. For example, if it masters driving a car in Grand Theft Auto, it could be used in self-driving cars, he said. Or it could learn how to make better predictions for the weather and financial markets. Hassabis and his team are already tinkering with parts of DQN’s algorithm to improve Google’s search function and mobile applications.

“The ultimate goal is to build smart, general purpose machines,” Hassabis said. “I think the demonstration shows that this is possible. It’s a first baby step.”

The post Artificial intelligence program teaches itself to play Atari games — and it can beat your high score appeared first on PBS NewsHour.