Chris McKinstry

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I am what I read

Personal Journal - June 1999 to May 2000

June 8, 1999 - Cerro Paranal

Well it's my first night on Paranal. We are observing a binary black hole system (XTEJ1550-564). Later we will look at HE 1043-0502 a magnetic white dwarf. It has such strong magnetic fields that it scrambles its spectrum; because of this it is possible to do tomography of it and figure out what it looks like.

At about 7:30 pm we had a tremor. Shook everything in the control room. The astronomer, Rick Hessmen didn't notice and neither did the telescope. It kept tracking perfectly.

June 13, 1999 - Cerro Paranal

Looked through the nazB focus of UT2 at 10:10 pm,  with my naked eye! I held up an eye piece and looked at Eta Carina;  it hurt my eye it was so bright! Only 15 people have ever looked through an 8 meter telescope with their naked eye, and I feel very fortunate to be one of them.

June 27, 1999 (7:00 pm) - Cerro Paranal

We've had very high winds for two days (peaks up 42 meters per second). The telescope is shutdown; we actually had to evacuate the mountain top and move down to base camp. This morning at 5 am the head of Science Ops, Roberto Gilmozzi was woken  up because a gamma ray burst had gone off. The caller had no idea the the VLT had been shut down.

June 28, 1999 (2:00 am)- Cerro Paranal

The mountain is still restricted. I have nothing formal to do. I can't sleep because that will screw up my schedule so I thought I do a little brain dumping....

I find Paranal a surrealistic place to work. The base camp looks something like 'Moon Base Alpha' from the  TV series, 'Space 1999'. Except for the color, the landscape could be moonscape. Everyone says it looks like Mars here. It does.

When I go to sleep at night,  my mantra is: MindPixel, MindPixel, MindPixel... I am trying...

- Someone just screamed! - 

It's snowing on Paranal! The driest place in the world and it's snowing. I can't believe it. I came 11,000 kilometers from Winnipeg, Canada, largely to escape cold and snow. Tonight I have done neither.

Okay back to my brain dump...

MindPixel, MindPixel, I guess I should define a MindPixel...

A MindPixel is a kernel sentence of consensus fact, such as:

- The sky is usually blue:TRUE
- It is difficult to swim with ski pants on:TRUE
- Water is a dry powder:FALSE
- Mars is the first word is this sentence:TRUE

MindPixels are always binary and are answered by most people in the same way when instructed 'Respond as you think most human beings would respond'.

I call these MindPixels because it is my strong opinion that with a very large number of MindPixels, we can create a high dimensional image of consciousness. Where each kernel sentence is one pixel in that image.

This brings me to the MindPixel Project.

Soon (by the end of August of 1999), I hope to be collecting millions of MindPixels. I will do this using a TRAVELZOO derived business model. Travelzoo essentially gave away shares of the company over the internet (some 700,000 people now share ownership). The giving away of the stock created a large base of people who used the web site, and in a kind of internet effect, made the company profitable from just selling advertising to the owners. MindPixel will work the same way, except the owners will be required to enter MindPixels and help validate them in exchange for stock.

I've done some initial calculations. A database of 1 billion unique MindPixels would take 4166 years to enter at the rate of 2 per minute. At $5/hour it would cost some $41 million to create the database. Ten million share holders entering 100 MindPixels each could do the job in a day, creating a database that would otherwise cost so much money that no one would ever create it.

So what can you do with a $41 million dollar database of MindPixels? Well for one, it could pass a scientifically strong form of the Turing Test call MIST (Minimum Intelligent Signal Test). The database itself would have enough MindPixels in it that a person querying it would have a high probability of hitting a MindPixel using standard pattern matching techniques; the database would thus appear to that person as indistinguishable from a human being.

Beyond that, the database can act as a sort of 'Automated Turing Test'. Right now, we can't evolve a conscious neural net because we have no way to train it; no fitness function. The MindPixel database can be used as a  fitness function. Actually it is a binary model of the total experience of an average human being. The database allows us to put into a computer something that can train a neural net in a machine time scale, how  to be human.

Once we have the database, we will learn a great many things about the tangled net of language and consciousness. I don't think it will be long before kids are playing with 'Conscious Furbies'. In fact that is my goal. The creation and commercialization of Artificial Consciousness.

It's raining!!! I can believe it is raining in the Atacama, the driest place in the world! Wow. There hasn't been rain here in recorded history.

June 28, 1999 (3:30 pm) - Cerro Paranal

Woke up to the sound of running water... the roof of the container complex I live in was leaking water from melting snow. My carpet was all wet. Outside everything was white for miles around.

Last night I fired off an email to CBC 'As it Happens', a national radio show in Canada. They called me at 12:30 and I did a five minute interview with them at 1:45. Telling them all about rain and snow in the driest place on earth. They were quite amazed, as am I. If you have realaudio, you can hear the actual interview by listining to the first 1/2 of the program in the CBC archive at: 6/28.html 

I'm in the control room now, the stairs were blocked off because water is leaking through the roof. Engineers are crawling all over the telescopes checking out water damage. The ASM atmospheric telescope is down because its computer got wet. We have no data connection to Europe because the satellite link is also down. Nothing here is designed to get wet.

I'm typing and looking out over the red martian landscape. It is a much deeper color than I have ever seen here because all the sand is wet. I really wish I had my camera... Fortunately others are taking lots of pictures. I'll post some as soon as I can.

In a couple of weeks, we should have fields of flowers. There are many seeds that have been waiting for this water for a very long time. I expect they will go crazy.


The above picture of me and snow at Paranal was taken by fellow telescope operator, Fernando Lecaros on June 28, 1999.  

July 7, 1999 - Cerro Paranal

Tomorrow will mark my first month at ESO, and two months in Antofagasta.

The Atacama is a very strange place for me. I'm a Canadian prairie boy; snow grass and mosquitoes are all I really understand, and here we have none of the above here. This place is dead, dead, dead. Sand and rocks.

And garbage (more on this later).

Our apartment is only 30 kilometers or so, south of the Tropic of Capricorn, so the climate is very stable. It doesn't get really hot or cold. It just stays about room temperature, which is why my brand new, very modern building has no heating or air conditioning.

My wife and I live on the 15th floor of a seaside condo. It has three bedrooms, and a galley style kitchen. The bedrooms are carpeted, the two bathrooms tiled and the living room and hallways are hardwood. We have an amazing view of the ocean and mountains. I'll post pictures as soon as we furnish the place... I put up pictures of our view much sooner. The place is pretty damn expensive, but there isn't much choice. Expensive or more expensive. Which is why we are planning to build a house.

Next week we are going to San Pedro de Atacama (of the famous cactus), to look for land. We want to build a self-sufficient, solar powered earthship. I expect construction to take at least 1 year, simply because of other obligations.

July 8 1999- Cerro Paranal

Had another earthquake. At 9:20, it was a 5.6 and the epicenter was about 10km from the observatory. The control room shook pretty badly, and the UT2 telescope will be off line due to a loss of hydrolic pressure.



August 6, 1999 - Cerro Paranal

MindPixel is progressing. I finally paid Internet Solutions for the domain name, and now I am in the process of finishing the alpha version of the business plan, as well as initial designs for the website and database structure. I hope to have at least something at by the end of this month. Test the link and see if I met my deadline...

Started ArConDev mailing list last month. It is a mailing list for people interested in the development of Artificial consciousness. To subscribe just click on the link. Right now, it has a grand total of 7 subscribers including myself.

August 8 1999 - Cerro Paranal


Quite frequently, people bring up HAL, the artificial consciousness from Clarke's 2001 in conversation . They ask me if that is what I'm working on, and I reply: not exactly. What I'm actually working on is a core module (IBM already completed the chess playing module: Deep Blue) of such a system; the internal model of self and world that is the center of identity of any conscious entity.

Don't think of HAL, but rather think of BIT, from Disney's TRON. If you remember BIT was a simple character (in fact a minimum character), only able to respond to yes/no questions (one bit questions). It is my opinion that the first artificial consciousness will closely resemble BIT.


This BITlike system will be indistinguishable from a human being answering yes/no questions. Eventually some other higher order HALlike system, will use such a BITlike subsystem to have completely authentic human style conversations, by transforming it's yes/no model of reality into a more complex linguistic communication system.

August 9, 1999 - Paranal

I was outside looking at Orion when I saw an amazing moon rise this morning at 5:40 am. I stood on the catwalk from the control room to the mountain proper, and on the horizon was the thinnest sliver of moon with the entire disk visible in a dull red. From my point of view, it looked like it was sitting on the ground right beside the UT 4 telescope. This is the new moon that in two more orbits, will eclipse the sun for the last time this millennium. An eclipse that I fear will be very disappointing for many in Europe.

Yesterday I got an email from someone asking me if I believed in life elsewhere in the universe, if we will ever detect such civilizations and about AI's traveling in space. I replied:

"Yes I believe in life elsewhere. As for detecting other civilizations, we might have already but have failed to recognize the fact. I think you have to think about this on time scales people don't think about very will. Not hundreds or thousands of years, but millions. The earth will be here for a long time, still a few billion years of life left in the sun. As a person I have a hard time thinking of what earth will be like in 2 million years... but think of this: an artificial consciousness can be permanent. That is it will not die, it will just keep experiencing and experiencing. It can't help but think on time scales that we can't understand. It could roam around the galaxy for millions and millions of years, stopping only long enough to talk to others and obtain resources it needs to move and think and remember."

"If you live forever, star travel is the same as walking."

Nasa is just begining to use Artificial Intelligence in space:

Remote Agent: Autonomous Reasoning Control for Spacecraft and other Complex Systems


Nasa says:

Nasa says:

"Remote Agent is a LISP-based software package developed to autonomously control a spacecraft, and is a precursor for self-aware, self-controlled and operated robots, exploring rovers, and intelligent machines that had heretofore been only the subject of science fiction."

The Deep Space 1 probe is very interesting to me for another reason. It has an Ion engine. My grade 8 and 9 science projects were Ion engines. The second one was hydrodgen fueled and caused my project to be shut down when the officials saw the cylinder of hydrogen (This was the first time I had a science project shut down, 2 years later, in 1984 my project on computer software copy protection was shut down when the suits from IBM came to visit... but this was a good thing, and a completely different story I'll tell at another time).


May 20, 2000 - Antofagasta

On May 12th, I had the most frightning event of my entire life. I woke up at about 20 minutes before 3pm, after a long night on Paranal and called my wife at home. We were speaking for less than two minutes before an earthquake struck. It was quite strong, but I wasn't worried because I was in a steel container, on the ground; nothing could hurt me. But... the earthquake was also effecting my wife, some 120 north of me. And effecting her very strongly. This was some big arthquake.

Our apartment is on the 15th floor of a brand-new building, itself sitting driectly on bedrock. Jessica was terrified. She ran to be with the baby and kept saying: "This is bad Chris. Very bad." We've both been through more than a few earthquakes, but not like this one. I kept trying to keep her calm, but could help wondering if the line would just go dead and I'd never see her or my son alive again.

The building stopped shaking after about 5 minutes and appears to have survived the quake undamaged. But just thinking about the sound of my wife's voice that day, starts me shaking all over again.

Below is the USGS summary of the event. It was a 7.0 cenetered about 400km west of Paranal. It killed only one person, a mine worker.




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