Nowadays, the fastest fastballs top out at around 106 miles per hour. Writing at his blog “What If?” (“Answering your hypothetical questions, with physics, every Tuesday”), Randall Munroe takes the quest for speed to its logical conclusion: What would happen, he asks, if you pitched a baseball at 90 percent of the speed of light—around 600 million miles per hour?
A ball traveling that fast, it turns out, would never reach home plate. Instead, its high-speed collisions with air molecules would create a growing wave of fusion reactions. As the ball disintegrated, the energy released would turn the surrounding air into super-heated plasma. For obvious reasons, the batter would never see it coming.
In the end, Munroe writes, “The shell of X-rays and superheated plasma expands outward and upward, swallowing the backstop, both teams, the stands, and the surrounding neighborhood—all in the first microsecond....Everything within roughly a mile of the park is leveled, and a firestorm engulfs the surrounding city.”
The book that erases itself
Eterna Cadencia, an Argentinian publishing house, has come up with a new way to fight summer-reading laziness: They’ve printed their anthology of new Latin American fiction using special ink that fades after two months’ time. The anthology, called “El Libro que No Puede Esperar” (“The Book that Can’t Wait”), starts out in a sealed package. From the moment you open it, the ink starts its eight-week fade.
The practical goal is to urge you to finish the book quickly, before it turns into just another notebook. But the fading ink also has a certain symbolic resonance. It’s a clever reversal of the usual contrast between the permanence of printed books and the ephemerality of digital reading—and a potent metaphor for what can happen to young writers who fail to find an audience.
Computers: stupid at heart
This June 23d marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, the mathematician whose insights paved the way for the modern computer. Turing also inaugurated the field of artificial intelligence with his famous “Turing Test”: We’ll know we’ve created an intelligent computer, Turing proposed, when it can converse in writing with someone in another room and convince him that it’s a human being.
It’s been 62 years since Turing proposed the Turing Test—so what’s happened to artificial intelligence since then? Writing in n + 1, David Auerbach offers a surprising answer. The quest for artificial intelligence that Turing inspired has been largely a failure—but a failure that has shaped the modern world in pervasive ways.
Working in the spirit of the Turing Test, Auerbach explains, early AI researchers focused on making computers linguistically intelligent. It didn’t work, in part because language is ambiguous and shifting in ways that human brains deal with far more easily than computers do.
Since the 1990s, AI has moved on, making “end runs...around the problem of understanding human language.” Our modern computing era, Auerbach shows, has been defined by this alternative approach. Take Google. It can’t understand sentences—in a strict sense, it has no idea what the Web is about—but it can notice the linkages between pages, and it can use them to figure out how the Web is organized. Today’s most intelligent computer systems arrive at a kind of “intelligence” by noticing how data are structured and interconnected. Ultimately, they’re piggybacking on real human minds. We do all the work of linking the pages together; Google picks up on what we’ve done and repurposes it.
The most intelligent and useful computers today, Auerbach writes, are powerful because they can take in a lot of human-generated data and use it, as Facebook does, to make a model of the way the world is organized. But they are still stupid at heart: They have no idea what anything means, and rely on us to divide the world up into useful categories (like “friends” and “interests”). As we come to rely on such systems in more and more areas of life, we are running up against their limits. “Because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them,” Auerbach writes. We should remember how limited they really are—otherwise, “their dumbness will become ours.”