Orwell and Huxley missed the future that Asimov inadvertently got right.

The powerful idea

A few years back a comic by Stuart McMillen (Recombinant Records) was circulating on social media that compared the futures prophesied by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (this comparison was taken from the foreword to Neil Postman:s "Amusing Ourselves To Death"). Since McMillen has taken down the comic due to wishes of the Postman family i'll do a short summary. Basically while Orwell made grim projections based on his experiences (as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war) with how revolutionary movements used physical thought oppression after gaining power by creating an overtly oppressive state, Huxley had envisioned a world where the power kept masses under control with a more voluntarily based information overload where problems and issues in society were diluted by amusement such as from mass media.

While both approaches can be said to have been applied in the real world for keeping the civil society in a domicile state, In Orwells case in oppressive regimes like East Germany and North Korea whilst Huxleys predictions could have been said to have been partially true for the Western world, i'd argue that the person who got the projections about current society right was Isaac Asimov with his concept of psychohistory.

The original Foundation trilogy whilst mentioning the idea of calculating probabilities of the future that was still mostly a smaller backdrop to the space opera and mental control ideas. However Asimov had also explored the potential of computer AI's doing projections of human actions and also controlling us in his Robot short stories and with the Foundation prequels written in the late 70's and 80's he fully latched onto the ideas of computers being ideal when merging his Robot and Foundation universes.

The Foundation prequels established that there was a need for both a way to (ONE) calculate the probabilities of events happening in a society (not on an individual level) as well as the ability to (TWO) control minds to tip over the scales whenever individual actions could control probabilities of events and follow up events. (The post-trilogy sequels also added that good politicians had a natural intuition about some of the probabilities of events).

SO how does this apply to our time?

ONE : Calculating event probabilities

Pollsters and similar people had gotten fairly good at using polling and data processing to do projections about electoral trends to calculate odds, they are still quite crude tools:

  1. Polls needs to be kept short and ask the right questions, if the question is wrong you can mislead yourself.
  2. Polls only cover a sample of the population leading to a big variance in the results
However, compare this with social media to see what Cambridge Analytica could do with the data trove they got to analyze (and probably more that i missed)

  1. Social media has a huge unfiltered data set of peoples opinions that only 10 years ago would have been prohibitively expensive to process but today massive data power can be bought on demand
  2. With unfiltered data you don't need to start by asking questions from people that might not respond correctly due to not having an opinion or being asked the wrong question, you can instead sift through the data to find the answers and post new questions almost for free if the answer is inconclusive.
  3. You have a far higher sample of the population but more importantly you have the SAME sample meaning that you can actually follow trends by correlating data with events.

TWO: Controlling people

Isn't mind-control science fiction? In the fantasy/sci-fi way of mentalist people yes. But if we circle back to social media we look at the other part of social media, how do they make money? Advertising of course and the reason Google tried so hard to compete in the social networking space with Facebook was because they very well knew that advertising could become so much better targeted with the data Facebook has at hand, and even with Googles data there are probably plenty of relevant data points to target individuals.

Just to remind ourselves there's been plenty of reports that advertisement targeted for special groups was present during the 2016 US election. Regular advertising always has had to account for backlash and fact checking and has often had a tendency to be pretty bland, contrast this with a highly targeted "dark" AD that not only could swing people directly to the "right side" but also cause secondary effects such as getting voters that were impossible to turn to vote for another candidate such as Jill Stein or not vote at all, both options that would strengthen the position of the side posting the ads.

Are we forever under the boot?

Depends on your outlook, some thinks that our kids growing up will eventually fix the problem but younger generations are probably equally ignorant. Others thinks that we should lock down the internet and may even point out that places like China and Turkey censor the internet and use offensive tools (but wasn't it that kind of governments we wanted to avoid?). Others might suggest quitting social media en masse (no that won't happen).

Despite the mess that the GDPR is causing in the EU right now, legislation in it's ilk might be the only sane choice combined with society making it a collective effort into bringing out people who try to influence covertly. I could stand behind for example advertisers on bigger social media platforms being required to submit identity verification and be clear about the sender of advertisements. Facebook already requires people to use real names and since both FB and Twitter have blue badges to indicate verified persons we might be already be heading in a direction where the air for people who try to keep working crowds anonymously is slowly sucked out.

I do have some respect for peoples wishes to be private but playing fields should always be level so if the social media platform is for real persons then one should keep to those rules there and do private discussions on sites where everyone is anonymous, because one of the huge issues now is that the playing field has been skewed in favor of those working in the dark.


Halting of the AI superintelligence.

TL;DR; There's proofs that to test a program you need to run it, thus an AI could not improve itself without a continuing risk of killing itself in the process (without constraining itself out of full improvements).

Every once in a while i see a post on artificial intelligence (the one from "wait but why" has been especially popular among fellow programmers) and I've also been asked by people not into computing about the impact of self driving cars on employment (Think of self driving Über cars but possibly more importantly how highway transportation will change the employment of truckers).

To summarize i'd say that there's both good and bad news. The bad news is that many of those truckers will probably be out of jobs (there will still be a need to watch out for robbers and the actual job of loading goods won't go away entirely).

The good news is that for the foreseeable future we shouldn't worry about any artificial super-intelligence changing our society without our control. Now a blanket statement like that might draw some criticism and looking at the advances we have with Teslas that predicts accident conditions and robots from Boston Dynamics that can put away your dishes it's easy to think that we're closing in on getting really smart AI's, maybe even as smart as the AI in the Terminator movies (once an AI can reason like a human there is no reason it couldn't get even smarter).

However if you scratch the surface a bit all of the advances we're seeing is just improved training of machines to handle predefined situations, the great improvements we've seen in the last 10 years has been due to the fact that graphics processors became usable to do fairly simple calculations and algorithms at amazing speeds compared to the your computers regular processor.

To put that increase in perspective. Your mobile phones graphics processor could probably have rendered better graphics for the 1993 Jurassic Park movie on it's own today in realtime than a few rooms of computers did in a few weeks(months?) back in the day.

With the availability of ridiculously fast graphics processors developers were suddenly able to do more expensive calculations and that enabled the usage of more extensive neural network based algorithms that had been too slow to use efficiently beforehand. And now in 2017 there is even appearing custom processors for "AI" problems and extensions to the graphics processing units's (GPU) to increase speeds even more for this kinds of problems.

So now what we can do all this, why shouldn't real AI's also become better?

Because any general AI is an entirely different beast than a program that can solve a specific human defined task (recognizing handwriting, recognizing traffic, walking, walking in a room,etc). A general AI would need to reason about hitherto unknown problems and to do that it'd need to be able to create new internal models for it (instead of predefined ones). There isn't anything close to an idea on how we do that ourselves in our brains or how an machine could do that.

An approach that is usually cited as a probable path that must be taken to evolve an AI would be to have self modifying programs. IE the AI would figure out what works and then continue evolving that way to become better with each generation of itself.

Some people have already started experimenting with modifying programs with AI's but those programs are usually tasked at doing specific small tasks and verifying that they work is easy (since the base program usually solved the problem itself to begin with). And this verification is the big reason why general evolving AI's probably won't see the light of day.

To verify that a very small program works is fairly easy, even some slightly more advanced programs might be possible to verify but as soon as a certain conditions appear in programs it becomes impossible to verify that the program will run properly with less processing power than it would take to actually run the entire program in full. This is known in computing as the Halting Problem and was proven long ago by Alan Turing (The same guy who's most known for being one of the foremost code breakers for the British during WW2).

So why is this a problem? Well it's quite simple when you put it together. An advanced AI looking to improve itself would need to change itself, however since proving itself fault free would be as expensive as running (IE the entire of it's own life) it would not be able to improve itself without eventually introducing errors that in an indeterminate number of generations could terminate itself.

And since it would work on it's own finding the error that eventually caused the problem would probably be an futile task without storing every previous generation and known data set of the world knowledge it used for improvements... even then the task of finding a probably minuscule set of errors with the help of humans would probably constrain such an AI to be at best slightly inferior to humans.

One argument around this would be to have an set of autonomous AI's that could support each other but for them to be the road to super intelligence they would probably need to "breed" with each other or otherwise take similar roads to improvement leading to the same problem with causes of failure being transplanted.

Now there could be an implementation in the future that proves me wrong but they'd need to sidestep this logic conundrum.


A response on Jonathans Blow's first talk about programming languages.

(The talk is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH9VCN6UkyQ )

It was a long talk full of thoughts and summarizing all implications of it wasn't possible without writing a long text so i put it into a few sections and i might also appear terse so please correct me and let me expand on things if needed. I'll also try to refer to other peoples work if possible so be prepared to do a little leg work to keep track of my points.

Part 1, something similiar

Having dabbled a lot in programming languages for games during a couple of years i've been on roughly the same train of thought as Jonathan presents in the talk. I actually got as far as implementing a preprocessor on top of C that did some of the main parts mentioned in the talk,

Back when i did this preprocessor i did a small sample that illustrated most of the features.

int main(int argc,char **argv) {
 List* l=@[ @Test{auto free char *str=strdup("hello"),int num=1},@Test{auto free str=strdup("world"),num=2} ];
 List_For(l,@void(Test* t) {
  printf("%s ",t->str);
 List_Destroy(l); // should delete the list and the sub entries and their strings
 return 0;

Apart from being mostly regular C code there was a few additions.

  • The @[] syntax creates a "List" object.
  • The @Test{  } syntax declares the type and allocates an instance of the type Test, (This feature was meant for throwaway and intra-module objects but the syntax also allows one to construct objects with custom property values as shown in the second instance)
  • The "auto free" annotation inside the declaration tells the preprocessor to invoke the function "free" on the contents of str when destroying a Test object.
  • The @returnType(Args) { body } syntax creates a lambda that's passed as an argument to the List_For function
  • And finally the List_Destroy(l) will destroy the list and all contents inside thanks to the auto syntax

I also stored full type information to aid auto-serialization as can be seen in this bigger sample that uses annotations embedded in the objects to load a hierarchical 2D sprite animation from a JSON file (the functionality is similar to Spriter). The lambda used in the get function with JSONUnpack is there to make correct type selection (allowing for some dynamism in terms of object loading)

The motivation for doing this pre-processor was a notion of wanting to write C as i wrote my JavaScript code (not worrying about memory deallocations, constant type specifications, lambdas and far simpler serialization) without losing too many benefits of having an environment like MSVC. For these parts it worked fairly well. Being a C preprocessor also bought with it a couple of nice side benefits.

  • I had hot code loading working (Via TCC) and actually used that part for iteratively making some jam game.
  • Since it was just a C preprocessor i was also able to debug the code fairly well from MSVC since the types was more or less C types and with #line directives i had correct source mappings (Closed over variables in lambdas could be tricky since they got embedded inside objects rather than be on the regular stack).
  • I had some dynamic dispatching code added for objects (similar to Objective C) since it was a relatively trivial addition compared to what i had already. Didn't find myself using it that much though.

So where did it go wrong? Since i didn't go further than being a C preprocessor i skimped on making proper modules. I added a module syntax where Anim::get("some.json") would refer to function get in the the module compiled from Anim.shi and while this was a good solution it became troublesome when referring to "structs" that were changing within another module when coexisting in a MSVC project that compiled each module when changed but didn't have any notion of dependencies (Looking at it in retrospect i should have probably just gone for full program compilation or at least linking as a pre-link step instead of trying to fit everything into separate modules).

So the direction of the talk has valid points and by handling a few things i did wrong the proposed language could be there already (with the exception of required tooling).

As a little side note that during this project i did remember finding myself thinking that i was reimplementing Objective C at many times. Not doing C/C++/ObjC all over when doing a similiar lowlevel language is kind of hard. :)

Part 2, general memory management

One of the first points Jonathan raised was to avoid GC's, yet he quickly comes back to it as the main point of automated management (the debug build double free detection would be composed of GC like code). I think the points he mostly thinks about is some kind of declarative hierarchy of memory management that automates a lot of C++ boilerplate similar to SQL's cascading deletes. While i fully agree that many parts of C++ are overly complexity much of it stems from being flexible in terms of how one can code while at the same time allowing for custom memory handling.

A prime example is actually mentioned in the talk, namely lambdas and the different forms of declaration (And i think this partially refers to the capture rules), they exist due to the funarg problem of lambdas. You usually have 2 principal kinds of uses of lambdas, either as a means of composing functionality within a local context (apply code X to every node in an arbitrary tree hierarchy) and the delayed callbacks. The first example of compositions will get bad performance hits if you start allocating data needlessly while the second one of delayed callback will cause faults if things wrongly exist on the stack. With a GC'd language this problem is usually shunted onto the GC as a performance problem (this one of the primary reasons for having a generational or a collector with similar characteristics) or you end up with a situation like in C++ where syntax has to be introduced to handle the details manually.

And, outside of this the talk also skirts in at times on problems readily solved by GC's. So let's go into some technical parts about GC's before throwing away the baby with the bath water to see what exists, how it works and finally what kind of solutions we could look at. Because by saying no to GC's directly we are 100%'ing on performance while possibly skimping on happiness.

There are 2 basic approaches to garbage collection, reference counting and tracing methods. To recap, ref counting slows down mutation since all reference handling slows down the mutator (program code), makes the compiler more complex and has problems with cycles, pure tracing on the other hand causes GC pauses that are highly undesirable for games. A lot of optimization work has gone into removing the worst problems associated with tracing and as long as memory isn't too short and the language/runtime helps out then soft realtime targets are attainable. These optimizations work by merging characteristics from ref counting with tracing as proven by some guys who did a lot of research into GC's.

Also an incremental GC (the minimal you want to avoid the worst pauses) either requires compiler support in terms of write barriers OR OS support for write barriers via paging (This method MIGHT be possible with some custom code hacks via MMAP).

While i like GC's the fact is that for a full program with many allocations you will either need to have ample memory available at all times or suffer from GC pauses. And we all know that artists won't allow for ample amounts of memory to be available ;)

Part 3, value memory management

Rust is mentioned a few times since it takes a fairly novel approaches to memory management in the low level world. In many ways Rust is an attempt to popularize and make practical some of the desirable characteristics for the low level world found in Erlang, funnily enough Erlang itself in may ways was an attempt at making features from languages like Prolog and ML practical (although not the same features).

In Erlang you work with immutables (this helps the Erlang GC's work as you are guaranteed that older objects are ALWAYS referenced by newer object), an observation of immutables also leads to the fact that you can guarantee that a linear language as first defined by Baker will work (one reference only, as in Rust). I actually did 2 linear dialects meant for demos/games long ago, one very fast JIT interpreter of something quite near Bakers paper and another far slower one that ran on J2ME to support saving the entire program state for a Lucasarts style adventure game, Having done these i kinda agree on the fact that working with such constraints puts a bit of unnecessary burden when doing application programming and this was what we were out to avoid in the first place.

Part 4, hammers and nails

Full system GC's can be a problem performance wise, yet the ways around them are troublesome or potentially buggy (setting aside programmer competence for a second). With one language we couldn't (perhaps shouldn't) try to do everything with one hammer. What of the option of system and scripting/application languages? Code performance of scripting languages sucks, they come with GC's and writing bindings for them has been a big on the level of managing loading and saving?

V8 and LuaJIT are examples of modern interpreters with dynamic typing that is several times faster than the systems of old, if you further restrict yourself to static typing via inference you could actually gain even more speed (more on this later). Like Erlang has shown (and this has inspired Rust) local heaps can be collected much quicker without affecting the entire system, an analogue to this is that application/scripting languages could live in a smaller part of the "world" that is garbage collected but due to the smaller size any pauses would be manageable. Finally the pain of writing bindings since you usually in the end usually need to access about every part of the project via scripting or move it to C/C++ code, notice how i mentioned loading and saving in the last paragraph? As serialization is solved by introspection so can bindings be with compilers that give us more information, sadly the single biggest omission of C++11 is the total lack of standard enforced type information and it's holding us back. (See for example how Nashorn and Rhino before it is able to interact with Java code while not seamlessly atleast deeply enough).

In terms of memory management it could be summarized as the low level part having a restrictive system, something in terms of declared ownership structure like my preprocessor auto and the talk's ! annotation weighted in a value like system of Rust exposed in an uniform way to GC'd application code that can easily follow the more restrictive rules when accessing lowlevel parts. (And also allow the application GC's to introspect system stacks to enable better GC when interacting through system-app codepaths).

Part 5, other ideas

As for concurrent compilation, yes and no. Many features are helped by that but benefits from full program analysis are lost (There might be a middle ground here). Eclipse is a great example of a compiler that takes the worst parts out of compiling by incrementally compiling files as they are saved.

Language concurrency has been getting far better by the years, C++ AMP is a good example right in the mainstream already and of course the actor model that many Erlang buffs swear by.

A idea i think gets an extra look in this context is coroutines/continuations since they could replace use for callback lambdas(compare it to people talking of function stacks of doom in the Node.JS community) and constrain the usage lambdas to functional compositions instead.

Type inference was bought up (partly in the context of duck typing), one very exciting project in terms of performance is Shed Skin Python but it has very long compile times (apparently 10 minutes for 6000 lines!). That project however tries to solve a fairly hard problem of trying to mold an uncooperative language into a static C++ form and has to deal with n-expansion. (Imagine writing a Generic binary tree container, when you use that container with different types an inferring compiler must figure out that the tree container object isn't generic itself but that the tree nodes contained within it are generic and that it should fix itself to the nodes types).

Languages like Ocaml, Rust,etc suits better to type inference and when doing constrained type inference one can results fairly quickly compared to when working with an uncooperative language, runtime updating of running code should be fairly easy also since you only need to allow updates of code that doesn't violate the existing constraints and updating a constraint net isn't too bad in a bigger context of type inference.


My belief is that while we could easily do things proposed in the talk, my C preprocessor was done as a hack in 2 weeks (refined over a month while doing another project) and got half of the things mentioned in (and added other things).

However i'm leaning more on that we really need to address the lack of reflection in C/C++ as a stumbling block to future languages that has C relegated to "inline assembly" style tasks for performance and figure out a powerful but usable language on roughly the same level of abstraction as Rust, Haxe and Swift. I'm not entirely sure if the language should have constructs to help compact memory for cache efficiency or if that should be left to C code, some minimal constructs would probably solve most used cases. 

Wow, that was a monster post and i hope that at some point in time someone manages to get through this post :)

And another long hiatus yet again.

In the previous post i noted that i had started looking at making games again, doing that however bought me back to languages yet again and i've been working on static compilation of javascript for the past year now (with breaks for ludum dares and smaller projects like my GBJam 3 project that i might post more about later).

This static compilation project is now my thesis work so i'm hoping that i'll be able to finish it in the near future, a small experimental project showed that statically compiled code with definite types can surpass even V8 in some specific cases when it comes to performance since a custom static compiler has less to worry about hostile code than a regular browser does.

More on this project later. Next up is a response to Jonathan Blow.


Long time no posting

Silly of me not to update this blog more often. Since i last posted (and was active on this blog) i've completely changed the direction of my company, basically i had plans to make a Java Bytecode-> C compiler to enable game companies to port their J2ME games to various platforms. Then the iPhone really gained traction and most people abandoned J2ME game development (not negative really!), i also heard from some friends at a company doing some similiar tools about how their time is mostly spent on support (i went on my own to be able to focus on doing products and not support/consulting in the long term) and then Oracle happened (no need to elaborate on that) and that was the final nail in that coffin.

During the time since the last blogging i've also been on leave with my kids and spent some time trying to figure out what to focus on. In the end the most sane choice (even with all competition) seemed to get back into actual game development and try to make some money.

During this time i've made a few game prototypes i'm now in the process of porting one of them to the iPhone. The link to the playable Ant General prototype is here (the performace is sadly bad on FF3 but it should work pretty well on most modern browsers).