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Monday, July 07, 2008

Random Thoughts: In Science We Believe

Brigham Young University is a private religious university. It is certainly an interesting experience for me, a non-LDS member, to attend the school. This article is an assignment from one of the classes I took, Computability and Complexity Theory, which is the only required course for PhD students. In this class, we learned about undecidability and incompleteness. And the professor asked us to write an article discussing how undecidability and incompleteness relate to our religious beliefs. Being almost an atheist (I used the term "almost" here because I can't prove the non-existense of supernature beings, therefore I can't completely deny it), I came up with the following article:

In Science We Believe
How undecidability and incompleteness
relate to an atheist’s view of the world

"An atheist is a person that disbelieves the existence of God or gods."


“Being an atheist, what is your belief?” When Dr. Jones asked me the question on our walk back to the Talmage building from class, my immediate response was that an atheist does not have a belief. But after I pondered upon this question more in the next several days, my thought became clearer. Although atheists do not believe in the existence of divine beings, we still believe in something. We believe in Science.

Science is imperfect. The history of science has proved that many times. Again and again, by correcting our mistakes we make great breakthroughs in the advancement of science. Science gives us a way to understand the world we live in, and gives us confidence (to a certain degree) to live in the world.

There are many different religions in the world, many ofwhom I have very limited or no knowledge about, that’s why I’ll focus our discussion in this paper to the religions I know, and in most cases, I’ll only discuss religions that are monotheisms.

So the first question you want to ask me is probably, “Why don’t you believe in the existence of God?” I guess my answer would be, “Because I do not believe in the existence of a perfect being with infinite power and wisdom, who has the ultimate control of the universe and never make any mistakes.” When I try to understand the world, I will first use our existing knowledge of science to reason, and when our knowledge is incomplete and the subject is undecidable I try to hypothesize using the current knowledge we have, and I remain skeptical about different hypotheses. I believe that as science advances further along, subjects that are undecidable and knowledge that is incomplete at the current time will eventually be explainable by science.

A. The Power of Prayers

Let’s consider the following story: Somewhere in the ancient times, two armies of soldiers were engaging in a fierce battle in the middle of the day. One side had much fewer soldiers and all of them would die if the battle continued. Desperate, the leader of the losing side knelt down on his knees and prayed to God for help. Within minutes, the blazing sun darkened and eventually disappeared as if night had fallen. Frightened by this “divine intervention,” the winning army stopped fighting and all knelt down in fear. By then, the sun reappeared in the sky and soon resumed its brightness. Shaken, the leader of the winning army promised to never fight the losing army again, thus, soldiers from the losing side avoided their fatal destiny.

If we ask any person in our class, he or she would easily conclude that an eclipse had happened in the middle of the battle. But for the soldiers in the story, they had no knowledge about such astronomical phenomenon, and being faithful Christians, they believed they had just witnessed a miracle performed by God answering to the prayer. So here is a very interesting question to ask: “Did God really answer the prayer and made the eclipse happen?” We’ll never know the answer. Even believers tend to think that this was not God’s answer to a prayer, but it is still possible that God foretold the event and planned the eclipse when he first created the universe, if and only if he does exist. To the losing army leader, the faithful Christian, this was definitely God’s answer to his prayer and this event will only strengthen his belief in God. But being an atheist, I tend to follow the scientific analysis and believe that the eclipse just happened to happen at the time, and the two things are unrelated.

Now let’s look at another example. In Masaru Emoto’s book The Message from Water, he showed some very interesting pictures from his experiments. I must admit that I cannot assure you the authenticity of these experiments, but that is irrelevant in this case and we can assume the experiment results are valid. The picture in Figure 1 shows crystal of water that have been exposed with a playing of Kawachi Folk Dance Song; the picture in Figure 2 shows crystal of water that have been exposed with a playing of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” When we look at the differences, we tend to think that the change of structure probably had something to do with the vibration created by the music, because we know sounds are energy waves. It’s all about science. Now let’s look at another two pictures. The picture in Figure 3 shows water crystal of Fujiwara Dam before offering a prayer, and the picture in Figure 4 shows water crystal of Fujiwara Dam after offering a prayer. So how did a prayer affect the structure of the water? Human languages do not follow a very clear and regular sound pattern like music does, therefore it was probably not the sound waves from the prayer that made the change. I don’t know how a believer would try to explain this phenomenon, but as an atheist, I tend to try following the same logic and deduct a hypothesis such as maybe the prayer helpedrelease a certain type of harmonious energy from the human body, which changed the structure of the water. And maybe in the first case, it wasn’t the sound waves from the music that changed the structure of the water but rather the same type of energy emitted by human subjects who were present at the experiment. Because I believe in science, I can try to understand the undecidable subject using logic or deduction from existing knowledge. To extend the subject a little further, following the same logic, I could hypothesize that if ghosts, spirits, or souls do exist, it is possible that these things are also different forms of energy emitted from human body, but I’d be very skeptical about whether they will go to heaven or hell.

Fig. 1. Crystal of water that have been exposed with a playing of Kawachi Folk Dance Song

Fig. 2. Crystal of water that have been exposed with a playing of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”

Fig. 3. Water crystal of Fujiwara Dam before offering a prayer

Fig. 4. Water crystal of Fujiwara Dam after offering a prayer

B. The Origin of Life

How did life originate on earth? This is a question many asked and many attempted at answering, resulting in many different theories. One theory hypothesizes that under a very specific natural environment, out of great randomness, certain chemicals reacted with certain other chemicals and wow, there was life from non-life, and this happened between 3.9 to 3.5 billion years ago. Another theory hypothesizes that earth life may have originated from “primitive” extraterrestrial life. These “primitive” life forms evolved in earth environment and eventually evolved into homosapien beings. The Bible states that God created life (the foundation for creationism) and God also created human (Adam and Eve being the first two) in his own image. Ancient Chinese mythology told the story of how the Goddess Nu-Wa created human beings out of earth in her own image (while a different God created the plants and animals). Being an atheist, I tend to agree more with the more scientific theories, and out of the Random Origin Theory and the “Primitive” Extraterrestrial Life theory, I lean more toward the later. And my reasoning relates to my current understanding of the universe. Since the universe is infinitely large and has always been there, it is also possible for life to always have existed (just like non-life materials). And with so many meteorites visiting earth since the beginning of earth, it is possible that life could have been brought along from other planets. It is also possible that primitive life forms were accidentally left on earth when extraterrestrial beings visited earth in spaceships. As an atheist, I don’t blindly believe or deny any one of the theories; I remain skeptical about each one of them. But because of my belief in science, I tend to believe more in the scientific theories.


Because our current understanding of science is imperfect, some scientific laws or theories we currently believe are true might turn out to be flawed or false, and when I try to reason using such false or flawed knowledge it will lead to false or flawed conclusions. For example, if I were born in 100 B.C., I would have believed that earth is flat, which we all know is clearly false. But I also believe that the flaws or errors in science will, one day, be corrected, and at that time, I would be able to understand the world more accurately. This room for correction in my belief system allows my belief to evolve. Sowith many undecidable subjects and incomplete knowledge, I believe as science advances, one day we will be able to understand and explain the subjects that seem to be unnatural or mysterious to us today. It might take a long time to get there, but as long as human race survives (especially surviving from possible self-destruction), we will get there.


Even though I am a perfectionist, it is just so difficult for me to imagine the existence of a perfect being. It is easier for me to believe Aliens created earth life environment (maybe in an experiment) than to believe God did it, because Aliens can make mistakes, they might be mortal, they use science/technology to manipulate matter, and they didn’t create the universe.

I guess the main difference between an atheist and a religious believer is that the believer makes the faith leap of believing without the proof, and an atheist will not believe without the proof. So if in the future science advances enough to let us have enough knowledge to prove the existence of God, then all atheists will also become believers. Before then, an atheist will remain skeptical.


In this paper I explained how I view the world from an atheist’s view when it is relating to undecidability and incompleteness. I hope I have not offended any believers and I hope the reader can get a better understanding of how an atheist reasons with undecidability and incompleteness. To summarize, an atheist believes in science and tries to reason with existing knowledge of the world. When existing knowledge is insufficient, he hypothesizes using scientific knowledge that is likely to relate. He doesn’t accept or deny any hypotheses and remain skeptical toward all of them, but he tends to believe more in theories that use science as the foundation because he could relate to it more easily. He also believes that as science advances on, one day, these undecidability and incompleteness can be reasoned and explained scientifically.

Taking grad level STAT class for a CS major is a stupid idea.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Robot of the Day: Robotic Flowers

Another make up post. When will I ever catch up?!

If you like decorating your rooms with flowers and plants but always "forget" to water your plants, why not consider having a robot watering your plants for you? Now here's an even better idea: why not just have robotic flowers and plants??!!

Chonnam National University in Korea has developed just the right solution for you: a robotic plant that emits oxygen, moisture, and aroma, and even dances to music (shown in the picture above). This 130cm tall and 40cm in diameter robot also knows how to greet you by bending toward you and bloom for you. It also reacts to light changes or even loud voices.

I tried to find more pictures or videos of this robotic flower but could not find any. There isn't any pricing or release date for retail products, either. I just hope it dances better than this one:

The idea of robotic flowers/plants is not new and researchers in US also developed various prototypes. The video below shows the robotic flowers designed by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal (MIT) that sway when a human hand is near and glow in beautiful bright colors.

Sena Clara Creston, an artist from New York City, built a robotic flower garden as one of her art projects. The video below shows some of the flowers she created. The next paragraph is direct quote from her statement about this project.

"Flower Garden is an interactive installation that detects and responds to the viewers' movements. The garden consists of about 20 paper-mâché and wire flowers each equipped with a distance sensor and arranged around a path for the viewer to walk through. Once the viewer gets within range the flower encloses its petals within its leaves. If the viewer remains in range the flower begins to shake making it appear to be nervous or frightened and if the viewer continues to approach, the flower responds by becoming aggressive, snapping it's petals and leaves open and shut. If the viewer steps out of range the flower seems to relax. It stops shaking and very slowly opens back up, exposing its petals. When the viewer enters the garden, the seemingly benign environment of fragile and vulnerable sculptures will have tuned into a mass of creatures fully expressing their aversion to the intrusion either by putting up their defenses, or in cases of extreme attack, becoming offensive. The viewer, realizing the impact they are having on the environment, will in turn react to the flowers, either choosing to hurry through the path causing as little disturbance as possible or embrace confrontation and continue to provoke the flowers."

I know these robotic flowers are supposed to represent timid fragile things that are nervous and frightened, but why do I always get this creepy feeling with monstrous man-eating creatures looming in my mind? Do you also get the feeling that they might just bite you, all of a sudden, like how this robot below is doing?

Frankly speaking, robotic flowers or plants that are for decorations only don't excite me that much. They are cool and cute (or creepy), but don't you wish it will do a bit something more for you, such as checking your emails for you?! Don't laugh! I didn't come up with this idea; someone else did, who even published a paper on this. Read my adviser's survey paper on Human Robot Interaction if you are interested.

Here's another idea. How about letting your robotic plant be your personal psychiatrist? Sega Toys actually came up with such a product named "Pekoppa" that will listen to your endless and meaningless ranting and react to it. (Disclaimer: I don't know Japaneses, so I have no idea what harm is done to the poor little robot!)

So, have you found the robotic flower/plant just right for you? I am still looking....

Rather than constantly worrying about the many things you have to get done, just start doing them one at a time.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Paper Review: The Seven Ages of Information Retrieval (2)

This is a make up post! Continuing from previous post.

In this survey paper, the author used the analogy from Shakespeare’s seven ages of man to describe and predict the different stages in the evolution of the Information Retrieval (IR) systems. Note that the paper was written in 1996, which was very near to the beginning of the Internet/Dot Com booming era. At the current time of 2008, which is only two years away from the final stage of IR (2010) described by the author, we are certainly at an unfair advantage of being able to validate and criticize some of the predictions the author made, just as the author also had the same advantage over Vannevar Bush’s predictions at 1945.

The paper made good contribution to the field by describing the history of the IR systems from 1945 to 1996 with abundant information on the various technologies developed, IR systems built, and how they affected the research in IR. The paper is especially well organized and easy to understand. It started by introducing Bush’s predictions and also ended with the confirmation that Bush’s predictions will be achieved in one lifetime. This made the paper complete. The author also used comparing the simple statistical approach to more sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) approach as a main thread throughout the different ages, which connected the seven ages well.

However, the paper also has some shortcomings. Firstly, AI is a big field that also used probabilistic/Bayesian methods all over the many subfields. There is not really a clear cut between AI and IR. For example, Natural Language Processing (NLP) is commonly considered a subfield in AI, but many NLP techniques are also the same as IR techniques.

Secondly, the author did not provide enough coverage for the AI side of the story, probably because he considered himself one in the IR camp. For example, Artificial Neural Networks (ANN) started around 1975, and Backpropagation (a form of ANN) gained its recognition in 1986 (itself actually dated in 1974). ANN can be used to detect patterns in text documents and is a great tool for IR, but was never mentioned in the paper. Another example is computer vision. The field of computer vision started in the 1970s and by 1995, many algorithms have been developed to analyze image contents. The paper didn’t mention any existing computer vision algorithms/techniques. Support Vector Machine (SVM), another great tool for IR, also came out in 1996, but I suspect it came out after the author wrote this paper.

The paper also failed to mention many important IR techniques such as td-idf, discriminant function. Specifically, it did not cover in enough depth with respect to evaluation methods such as K-L divergence, F1-Measure etc. More coverage of techniques/methods like these would have improved the quality of the survey paper.

Additionally, some of the graphs (Figure 4, 5, 9) in the paper do not contribute much to the content of the paper. Adding more information to these graphs to show correlation of things, or combining these graphs would be more beneficial to the readers.

In the latter part of the paper, the author made predictions about the possible evolution of IR and also pointed out potential problems. Since we know how technology evolved from 1996 to 2008, I’ll address some of them here.
The author mentioned that there would be enough guidance companies on the Web to help serve each user, so the lack of any fundamental advances in knowledge organization will not matter. What do we do when we need to look for information online these days? We search using Google or Wikipedia, and most of the time, we are relatively happy with the search results. Google made it its mission to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”. And the mission for Wikipedia is to “empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally”. This leads to an interesting idea: with the help of Google and Wikipedia, maybe we can make the Internet the “Expert System” or “Knowledge Database” and have agents learn from it directly.

The author also worried about commercial publishing on the Internet. These days, the music industry has made (probably was forced to) online distribution an integral part of its sales channel. The sale of e-books, although not mainstream, is slowly growing its market share, and various fancy e-book readers (e.g. the Amazon Kindle) are also getting better and making headlines. Google book search and Amazon’s book preview function are also getting more and more attention.

In the paper, the author cautioned about storage and transfer constraints in digital video. Thanks to even lower storage cost and many competing broadband service providers, today, a majority of Internet users have fast connections and use various streaming video websites such as (video contents provide by users), or (content provided by commercial content owner) to watch video online. Even Google ads these days contain video contents. The paper proposed that in the 2000s, more research is needed for image, audio, and video content extraction. He was right on. Even today extracting information out of abundant rich-multimedia content is still a very challenging problem for many researchers. Other than the traditional type of information media, now we also have new media such as Google Earth, where you can retrieve information from a hybrid of satellite images, regular maps, and street views (360 degrees), coupled with driving directions and estimated travel time.

In the retirement age of IR, the author predicted that “the central library buildings on campus have been reclaimed for other uses, as students access all the works they need from dormitory room computer”. I don’t think this will happen in two years. Libraries in universities still play very major roles for students and teachers, and university bookstores are still making huge profits off poor students. And one has to admit that holding a physical book in hand is a very different experience from reading a book online.

To reduce the amount of junks and cluttering on the Internet, the author suggested maybe anonymous posting should not be allowed on the Internet. This sounds so funny for modern day people when privacy is such a big concern, though this remains a big problem. Think about the trillions of documents out there with more and more rich-multimedia contents, plus the flourishing blogs, forums and social networks. Google suggested using page ratings by users which was not well greeted. I think we just have to rely on the advancement in AI and search engines to deal with it. Techniques such as taking consideration of user preferences and past history are certainly the right way to go.

The author further pointed out some potential problems such as illegal copying (pirating in today’s term), copyright law itself, difficulty for people to upload, legal liability and public policy debates restricting technological development and availability. These remain challenges for IR systems today (the word RIAA and peer-peer network suddenly emerged in my head for some reason!) and probably will take more than two years to resolve.

In my personal opinion, I think AI will start to play a leading role in IR in the following years and one day we will have true question answering type of information retrieval at the finger tip of every Internet user. This concludes my review of this paper! Thanks for reading it!

Listen to smart people.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Paper Review: The Seven Ages of Information Retrieval (1)

This is a make up post!

In these paper review series, I will summarize interesting papers I read in a non-technical way (as best as I can) and write my own opinions too. Since my research interest is in AI robotics, the papers I review will mostly relate to interesting topics. So this is a good way of reading about research ideas but not worry too much about the math involved. I will also provide links to the actual paper, so if you want, you can read the actual paper after reading my review.

The paper I review today talks about the history of Information Retrieval. How would this relate to robots? I will review the answer in my future posts, so stay tuned.

Here's the PDF link for the paper "The Seven Ages of Information Retrieval" by Michael Lesk. And here below is the first part of my review:

This paper uses Shakespeare’s concept of seven ages of man to describe/predict the evolution of Information Retrieval from 1945 to 2010. Throughout the paper, the author tried to compare two “competing” approaches to IR: simple statistical methods – statistics (Warren Weaver’s approach) and sophisticated information analysis – artificial intelligence (Vannevar Bush’s approach). Keep in mind that the paper was written in 1996, just at the beginning of the Internet/dot com boom. That gives us this unfair advantage of being able to criticize some of the predictions the author made (just as the author had the advantage in criticizing Bush’s predictions).

In the childhood stage of IR (1945-1955), people still worked with very old technology. Having no idea how technology completely changed people’s lives starting from the end of the century, Bush predicted about the evolution of IR. He believed that photographic inventions (such as ultramicrofiche) would have great impact on libraries and IR, which the author didn’t agree. Bush also predicted automatic typing from dictation and OCR, which was not quite achieved at 1996. However, his prediction about the capabilities of computer systems became reality in the 1960s. The 7.5TB/user storage he predicted was far from 1996’s reality. Bush predicted individual interfaces personalized to the user and people would search from notes before search in scientific papers, but not until after the 1970s, it was difficult to get information into computers. The first IR system was built in the 1950s, which used indexes and concordances.

In the schoolboy stage (1960s), the first large scale information systems were built. Computers can search indexes must better than human, which demanded more detailed indexing. However, indexing could also become too expensive, hence arose the idea of free-text searching, which eliminates the need for manual indexing. Objections pointed out that selecting the right words might not be the correct label for a given subject. One solution is official vocabularies. The idea of recall and precision also came out as methods for evaluating IR systems, and they showed that free-text indexing was as effective as manual indexing and much cheaper. New IR techniques such as relevance feedback, multi-lingual retrieval were invented. The 1960s also was the start of research into natural language question-answering, and AI researchers began building systems to retrieval actual answers instead of documents, which turned out to be fragile.

In the adulthood stage (1970s), development of computer typesetting, word processing and the availability of time-sharing systems allowed IR to mature into real systems. Some of the early large-scale systems include Dialog, Orbit, BRS, OCLC, and Lexis. The most important research progress was the rise of probabilistic information retrieval with techniques such as term frequency. On the AI side, the key subjects in the 1970s were speech recognition and the beginning of expert systems. AI researchers felt they were attacking more fundamental and complex problems and that there would be inherent limits in the IR string-searching approach. They built programs that mapped information into standard patterns, but these tend to operate off databases rather than text files. The IR camp felt the AI researchers did not do evaluated experiments, and in fact built only prototypes which were at grave risk of not generalizing.

In the maturity stage (1980s), more information was available in machine-readable form and kept that way. There was also an enormous increase in the number of databases available on the online systems. Online Public Access Catalog (OPACS) developed during this period and many current magazines and newspapers were now online. There was increasing interest in new kinds of retrieval methods such as sense disambiguation using machine-readable dictionaries and computational linguistics. These would all fall under the statistical kind of retrieval. Because of the size of large commercial systems, evaluation of IR became very difficult. The widespread use of CD-ROM was a key technology change, which fit well with traditional information publishing economics and developed into a real threat to the online systems. Meanwhile, the AI community continued expert systems and knowledge representation languages. However, later in the decade, the failure of expert systems to deliver on their initial promises caused a movement away from this area, which marked the “AI winter”.

In the mid-life crisis stage (1990s), another technology revolution came out, the Internet. What’s remarkable is not that everyone is accessing information, but that everyone is providing information on a free basis. This matches the model Bush forecasted where each user is organizing information of personal interest and trading this with others. Classification type search engines (such as Yahoo) also came out. Internet also became a standard medium for publishing. Another important technology was scanning, which lowered the cost or digitizing publications. The Federal government also started a Digital Library research initiative. However, there is still very large scatter in the performance of retrieval systems, not only by question but even over individual relevant documents within answer lists. The author didn’t mention how the AI side was during this period.

In the fulfillment stage (2000s), the author predicted how IR might evolve. He believed that more ordinary questions can be answered by reference to online materials rather than paper materials, new books are offered online and there are guidance companies on the web so that the lack of any fundamental advances in knowledge organization will not matter. He thought the area required more research was in the handling of images, sounds and video. It was noted that online publish won’t pose a problem for academic publishing, but will do for commercial publishing. He further discussed the dramatic storage requirements for video contents.

In the retirement stage (2010), the author forecasted that the basic job of conversion to machine-readable form is done and great deal of multimedia information will be available, which are as easy to deal with as text. Internationalism will become a major issue. As to research, work will focus on improving the systems and learn new ways to use the new IR systems. There might even be PhDs in probabilistic retrieval.

The author further pointed out some potential problems such as illegal copying (pirating in today’s terms), copyright law itself, abundance of junk and cluttering on the Internet, difficulty for people to upload, legal liability and public policy debates restricting technological development and availability. At the end, the author also expressed positive views that Bush’s dream will be achieved in one lifetime and the job of organizing information could have higher status in the very near future.

[To be continued....]

Bill Gates does the Robot!
(See hi res video at
(Rumor says no more Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates duo!)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Robot of the Day: Atom (Astroy Boy)

This is a make up post!

This is the first ever "Robot of the Day" blog post, and I just feel obligated to designate this "honor" to Atom (aka 阿童木, Astro Boy), a fictional robot character created in Japanese manga (动画) and television animation series in the 1950-60s, because the lovable, brave, and peace-loving Atom inspired a whole generation of kids, some of whom went on to become robotics researchers (me included). Some people even claim that Atom was the big reason why Japan is at the forefront of android development today! In a WIRED magazine article, "The 50 Best Robots Ever", Atom was ranked at #2 dispite being only a fictional character. Impressive!!

I still remember when I was just a little kid, the entire neighborhood of over 100 families shared one television set - a 14-inch color TV (this might give you some clues about how old I am), which was locked in an iron cabinet in a spacious openning by the neighbourhood. Every evening at around 6:30pm, people (mostly kids and some adults) would start taking spots in front of the TV cabinet with their small wooden stools. Of course, a good spot (close to the TV) might have required even earlier arrival. At exactly 7:00pm, the uncle in charge of the TV cabinet would unlock the cabinet and turn on the TV. As soon as the theme song started to play, the chaotic crowd would immediately quiet down and soon everyone was immersed in the adventures of a cute little robot named Atom. Ask anyone who was born in the 70s in China, he/she could probably still sing a few lines from the famous Atom theme song (see video below)....

The character Atom was created in 1952 as a comic character by Japanese comics artist, animator, producer and medical doctor, Osamu Tezuka (手冢治虫), who is often credited as "Father of Anima". The story was put on television in Japan from 1963 to 1966 and immediately achieved great success. The Atom series was remade in the 1980s as Shin Tetsuwan Atomu, which was also translated into English as the "Astory Boy" and broadcasted by NBC in the United States. The video below shows the opening theme for the English version of Astory Boy.

In the story, Atom was built by the head of the Ministry of Science on April 7, 2003, as a replacement for his son, who died in a car accident. Although Atom looked identical to his lost son, he soon realized that the little andriod was a failure because it was only a robot that doesn't grow or express human aesthetics. So he sold Atom to a circus. Professor Ochanomizu (茶水博士), the new head of the Ministry of Science, noticed Atom and managed to become his gardian. He also gave Atom seven special powers. Using these special powers, Atom fought crime, evil, and injustice.
  1. Jet engines under his feet for flying;
  2. Ability to speak 60 different languages;
  3. Ability to distinguish good and evil;
  4. 1,000 times more powerful hearing than human;
  5. Strong searchlights as his eyes;
  6. Ass cannon (later changed to finger machine gun in the new TV series)
  7. 100,000 horse power (later improved to 1 million horse power)
In the story Atom was born in 2003. It is already 2008 now and we are still far from able to create a robot of Atom's caliber. However, the story of Atom does paint a good picture of what we'd like to achieve with robotic technology. Specifically, I look forward to the day when robots and human can peacefully and happily live together under the same sky.

Interesting facts:
  • In real life April 7, 2003, a Japanese city officially registered Atom as an honor citizen and issued certification of citizenship.
  • In 2009, a feature film version of Astro Boy is scheduled to hit the theater screens.

When you have good thoughts or ideas, write it down before you forget.

Monday, June 30, 2008

AI and Robots: What is AI (2)

This is a make up post! Continuing from previous post.

Traditionally, AI researchers believed that perception (sensor data) about the world feeds into cognition (the brain of the agent), and then cognition would issue commands for action (actuator) that will affect the world. This seemed to be the right model that mimic human behaviors. However, in mid-1980s, a then a junior faculty member at Stanford, Rodney Brooks, proposed a different model in which perception directly interacted with action, and cognition simply observes perception and action. He further followed this idea and started a new branch of AI called Behavior-based Robotics.

Rodney believes the path to creating intelligent creatures is only by building actual physical creatures that respond to the complexity of the environment in which they must navigate, and all the power of intelligence arose from the coupling of perception and actuation systems (even just the simple "muscle reflexes" ). The robot shown on the left is an example. It was able to balance, walk and prowl with simple reactive controls (in another word, it doesn't have a brain). It seemed that intelligent, complex behaviors emerged out of simple reactions. Later biology research was able to confirm that the balancing skills of cats come directly from the spinal cord, instead of the brain. As Rodney describes it, intelligence is "in the eye of the beholder".

For example, we all know that a sunflower always turns its "head" toward the sun (Heliotropism ). This appeared to be somewhat of an "intelligent" behavior. However, such behavior is simply the result of chemical reaction. With the increase of potassium ions the osmotic potential in the pulvinus cells becomes more negative and the cells absorb more water and elongate, turning the face of the flower to the sun.

If you are still not convinced, here's another exmaple (try at your own risk). Gently touch a burning stove top with your finger and then observer. If you ponder it carefully, you might realize that your hand moved away from the burning stove top before you actually felt the burning sensation. The seemingly "intelligent" behavior of moving your hand away happened before your brain could even sense the pain, so how could it issue a command to retract your hand? The answer is that the command didn't come from your brain at all.

That's why I tend to lean toward the last definition of artificial intelligence: systems that act rationally. It doesn't matter much how intelligence was achieved; what matters the most is that I made myself believe the agent displayed intelligent behaviors.

So where did the name "artificial intelligence" come from? In 1956 (probably the most important year in the history of AI), John McCarthy (shown in the picture on the right), a researcher at Dartmouth College then, convinced Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Nathaniel Rochester to help him organize a two-month workshop at Dartmouth in the summer of 1956. There were 10 attendees in all, including Tranchard More, Arthur Samuel, Ray Solomonoff, Oliver Selfridge, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon. The workshop didn't lead to any new breakthorughts, but it did introduce all the major figures to each other and for the next 20 years, the field would be dominated by these people and their students and colleagues. The most important thing that came out of the workshop was an agreement to adopt McCarthy's new name for the field: "artificial intelligence".

The term "Artificial Intelligence" is an oxymoron. How could something "artificial" be "intelligent"? That's why for most people, there's always a mythical component to it. An artifact appears "intelligent" because it seems to do intelligent things with magical power. However, once the secret of how the artifact was able to perform is revealed, all of a sudden, the sense of "intelligence" is diminished. It's almost like magician tricks. Once you know he hid the rabbit in the hat beforehand, it's not so impressive anymore.

For example, if you present a music box to a person from 1000 years ago, he would believe the box is magical (in a sense, "intelligent"), but if you let him take it apart and investigate further, he will for sure change his mind. The same applies to modern day artifacts. A car that parallel parks itself might make you go "wow" and appreciate the power of "artificial intelligence". However once I explain to you that the computer only issued simply driving commands following simple if-then rules based on sensor data, all of a sudden, the car doesn't seem so "intelligent" to you anymore.

This is a very interesting phenomenon, and is also a great challenge/motivation for AI researchers. It seems that all AI problems solved are no longer AI problems, because we already know the secrets/algorithms behind, and they are simply procedures to follow and conditions to check. Only AI problems unsolved still have the mysterious "intelligence" we have to identify and create.

This explains why AI is an evolving concepts. A purely mechanical device would have been considered "AI" in ancient days, but definitely not in present time. Maybe one day all the electronic computer related products "cease" to be "AI" and only biotechnology with cells acting as computers will be.

It's also worth noting that "AI" is almost everywhere in our everyday lives in almost every field you can think of. When you sit in your office, your PDA "intelligently" remind you of your appointments; your computer "intelligently" auto-fills text for you as you type, and the word processor "intelligently" point out the typos and syntax errors you made. When you pick up the phone to call for some kind of service, the computer telephone agent "intelligently" routes you to different departments based on your needs (or even handle it for you). When you drive on the street, the street lights "intelligently" change based on the traffic flow, the security cameras "intelligently" track down unusual behaviors (and "intelligently" take a picture of your license plate if you run the red light). When you sit comfortably in front of your home computer, whether browsing the Internet or do online shopping, the web site will "intelligently" recommend stories or products tailored specifically to you. Even your air conditioning system "intelligently" adjust the temperature for you while your sprinkler system "intelligently" kicks on to performs its routine task. I guess one great part about this is the amplitude of job prospects! ;)

Despite so many confusion and ambiguity, AI remains the "field I would most like to be in" by scientists in many disciplines. As Russell and Norvig described it: "A student in physics might reasonable feel that all the good ideas have already been taken by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and the rest. AI, on the other hand, still has openings for several full-time Einsteins.

Now have I convinced you to become an AI researcher just like me? :)

Additional Information:
  • John McCarthy - Cognitive Scientist. 1971 Turing Award winner. Inventor of the Lisp programming language.

  • Marvin Minsky - Cognitive Scientist. Co-founder of MIT's AI lab.

  • Claude Shannon - Electronic Engineer and Mathematician. "Father of Information Theory."

  • Nathaniel Rochester - Computer Scientist. Invented IBM 701 and wrote first assembler.

  • Arthur Samuel - Pioneer in computer gaming. The Samuel Checkers-playing Program appears to be the world's first self-learning program.

  • Ray Solomonoff - Invented the concept of algorithmic probability around 1960.

  • Oliver Selfridge - "Father of Machine Perception."

  • Allen Newell - Researcher in computer science and cognitive psychology. 1975 Turing Award winner. He contributed to the Information Processing Language (1956) and two of the earliest AI programs, the Logic Theory Machine (1956) and the General Problem Solver (1957) (with Herbert Simon).

  • Herbert Simon - Political Scientist. One of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century. 1975 Turing Award winner. 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics winner.

Intelligence is "in the eye of the beholder" -- Rodney Brooks

Friday, June 27, 2008

AI and Robots: What is AI (1)

This is a make up post!

The image you see here is from the famous chess match between Garry Kasparov, a world champion, and Deep Blue, a super computer built by IBM, that took place in 1997. The computer was able to "beat" the world champion. Despite the argument that this match was not "fair" to Kasparov, at least there's one thing we could all agree: Deep Blue certainly showed signs of Artificial Intelligence. But, what really is Artificial Intelligence? Is it simply intelligence created artificially?

In order to understand what is Artificial Intelligence, we might have to first define intelligence. But what is intelligence? Do the bacterias on the keyboard I am typing on have intelligence? Are the rose bushes in my garden (which adds more to my yard work load) intelligent? How about the butterfly sitting on the rose pedal? How about the planet called earth we all live on? Different people might have different answers. I don't want to get too philosophical here, so I'll simply define intelligence as the ability to reason and learn. I know this is still rather vague. Under my definition, all those things I mentioned above could still be categorized as intelligent beings. If you are still not satisfied, you are also welcome to read and modify the wikipedia page on intelligence.

So how should we define Artificial Intelligence then? Again, many people would give you very different definitions. Russel and Norvig summarized all the different definitions into four categories in the book "Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach":

Systems that think like humansSystems that think rationally
Systems that act like humansSystems that act rationally

The top ones focus on the ability to reason while the bottom ones emphasize on behavior. The left ones relate AI to human performance while the right ones only measure rationality. All these categories have their merits, but I personally lean toward the last one: Systems that act rationally.

When we try to create Artificial Intelligence, it is easy to try to model after human beings. Why? Because first of all, human beings are intelligent beings (arguably, there are stupid people too). Furthermore, we certainly understand ourselves easier than say, the white mice used in scientific experiments. We try to understand our reasoning and logic behind our thinking and behaviors, and then try to apply the same kind of ideas to an AI agent and have the agent mimic us. There are certainly still many things we don't know about ourselves, and the research in AI is actually a great way to try to understand ourselves better (individually or socially).

It is necessary here to mention the famous "Turing Test". Alan Turing (shown in the picture on the right) is often considered to be the father of modern computer science. The "Turing Award" named after him is considered the Nobel Prize in computing. In a 1950 paper he proposed an operational definition of measuring artificial intelligence: The computer passes the test if a human interrogator, after posing some written questions, cannot tell whether the written responses come from a person or not (Russell & Norvig). You can think of this in terms of a chat window. If you think who you are chatting with is human, but the other entity chatting with you is in fact a computer program, then this program would have passed the "Turing Test". (You can check out this chatbot if you know a little bit of Chinese.) Interestingly, some "flirting chatbots" are reported fooling lonely Russians into giving out their financial information. Can we say these AI agents passed the "Turing Test"?

There are other intelligent species on earth too, and many times we learn from them because they might do better in certain areas. Many AI researchers also get inspired by biological beings and develop AI algorithms accordingly to solve problems related to human. In my opinion, AI is really the study and expansion of human intelligence.

However, human also do stupid things. We pollute the world we live in, we destroy forests, and people get killed in wars or genocides. Sometimes we are also irrational; we let emotion take over and let that affect our judgment. Therefore, the rationality approach to the definition of AI has good reasons. So what is thinking and behaving rationally? Let me give you two examples and then you can decide yourself.

The first example comes from Russell and Norvig's book. If you see someone you know across the street, you look to the left and look to the right and made sure there is no traffic nearby before proceeding to cross the street. Meanwhile, at 33,000 feet, a cargo door falls off a passing airliner and flattens you before you make it to the other side. Have you acted rationally?

The second example comes from the novel "I, Robot" by Isaac Asimov (made into film in 2004 starring Will Smith). In this story, the robots came to the conclusion that in order to protect human from self-destruction, it is necessary for robots to take over. Have these robots acted rationally?

[To be continued...]

[Quote from the I, Robot movie (2004)]

Detective Del Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a... canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
Sonny: Can *you*?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Smiling Proud Wanderer: Chapter 21 (1)

Had a bad headache today and had to take a 7-hour nap during the day! Anyway, for completeness, here's what I already have for Chapter 21:

When Linghu Chong finally came around, he found himself surrounded by complete darkness, knowing neither where he was nor how long he had been out cold. The headache was so bad that he almost felt as though somebody had cracked his head open and loud thunder-like rings still rumbled continuously in his ears. He tried in vain to get back onto his feet but found no strength left in him at all.
“I must be dead already and have been buried into a grave,” he thought as the strong sense of grief and fuss quickly overwhelmed him and he fainted once again.
By the time he woke up the second time, although his headache didn’t get any better, the ringing in his ears did lighten up a great deal. He felt something cold and hard underneath him as though he was lying upon something made of iron or steel. A quick feel with his hand soon confirmed that it was indeed an iron plate underneath the straw mat. As soon as he moved his right hand, a light clank broke out, and at the same time he felt something icy-cold tied around his wrist. When he tried to feel it with his left hand, the clanking sound rose again. Turned out that his left wrist also had something tied around it. A mixed feeling of shock, joy, and fear soared in his heart. Now he was sure that he had not died but had been shackled. He felt it again with his left hand and then came to realization that it was a thin steel chain tied around his wrist. A slight move of his two feet also revealed steel chains shackled around his ankles. He opened his eyes as wide as he could and stared forward, but did not see even a glimmer of light.
“I was having a sword match with the Revered Mr. Ren right before I fainted. How did I fall for the machination of the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan?” he asked himself. “It looks as though I am also locked up in the dungeon underneath the lake. Have I been locked up in the same cell together with the Revered Mr. Ren?” At that thought, he called out immediately, “Revered Mr. Ren? Revered Mr. Ren?”
He called out twice, but did not hear anything in return. Feeling of great shock grew stronger and stronger in his heart and he called out even louder, “Mr. Ren! Mr. Ren!” But once again, all he could hear in the pitch black were his own hoarse and vexed cries.
As desperation began to sink in, he shouted out at the top of his lungs, “First Master! Fourth Master! Why have you locked me in here? Let me out! Let me out!” But other than his own shouting, there was not another sound all the while.
Soon panic turned into rage, and he began pouring our streams of abuses, “You despicable, brazen, evil scum! You couldn’t beat me in the sword matches, so you figured that you could lock me up here to get even? How shameless you are!” But the thought that he would be locked up in the dark dungeon underneath the lake for the rest of his life just like the Revered Mr. Ren instantly made his hair stand on end and his heart filled with despair. The more he thought about it, the more afraid he became, he couldn’t help but bawl on top of his lungs, and before he knew it, the bawling had turned into loud wails, and tears had streamed down his cheeks uncontrollably.
“You four…four despicable scoundrels…of the Plum Manor,” he cried in a hoarse voice, “If I can make it out of here one day, I’ll…I’ll blind…blind your eyes with my sword, and sever…sever both your arms and legs…. Once I escape the dark dungeon….” But suddenly he fell silent when a loud voice echoed in his head, “Will I ever escape the dark dungeon? Will I ever escape the dark dungeon? Even Revered Mr. Ren, such a capable man, can’t get out. How…how can I make a difference?” Anxiety immediately surged in his heart. Feeling really sick in his stomach, he vomited, and after a few gags of blood, he fainted again.
In the wooziness, he thought he heard a cracking sound, and immediately after, bright light dazzled his eyes. Waking up abruptly, he leapt to his feet, but he forgot that both of his wrists and ankles were still shackled by steel chains. Furthermore, he did not have much strength left in him, so only instants later, he fell back down heavily and all the bones in his body seemed to have been falling apart. Having been in complete darkness for a long while, his eyes were not adept to sudden lights, but for fear that the gleam of light might just vanish as abruptly as it appeared, voiding him of any opportunity to escape, he kept his eyes wide open and stared hard toward the origin of the light despite the stinging pain.
The gleam of light had come from a one-foot wide, square-shaped opening. And he remembered at once: the dungeon cell Revered Mr. Ren lived in also had a squared-shaped opening on the iron door. In fact, it had one exactly identical to this one. He took a quick glance around and then confirmed that he was, indeed, also locked in the same kind of dungeon cell.
“Let me out of here! Huang-Zhong, Black-White, you despicable scoundrels, let me out if you’ve got any guts!” he shouted out.
A large wooden tray came forth slowly through the square-shaped opening, on top of which was a large bowl of rice with some cooked food piled on top. There was also an earthen jar, which apparently held some soup or water.
This sight made Linghu Chong even angrier, thinking, “Bringing food and water to me only means that you want to lock me in here for an extended period.” So he cussed loudly, “You four dirty swine, listen up! If you want me dead, just come forward and give me your best shot. Stop playing games!”
But the wooden tray remained still. The person outside the door obviously wanted him to take the tray in. Infuriated, Linghu Chong reached out and struck it hard. Loud clangs echoed as the rice bowl and the earthen jar fell to the ground and smashed into pieces. Food and soup splashed everywhere. Slowly, the wooden tray retracted out of the opening.
In a storm of rage, Linghu Chong threw himself at the squared-shaped opening, and then he saw a completely gray-headed old man, a light in his left hand and the wooden tray in his right hand, turning away unhurriedly. Deep wrinkles covered the man’s entire face, a face Linghu Chong had never seen before.
“Go get Huang-Zhong or Black-White here! Tell those four shameless scoundrels to come here and fight me like a man if they’ve gotten any guts!” Linghu Chong shouted out.
But the old man didn’t pay him the slightest attention and kept walking further and further away unhurriedly, stooping low with his back.
Linghu Chong watched on as the man slowly disappeared around the corner of the tunnel. The light also gradually dimmed until it finally faded into gloom. After a short while, he vaguely heard the sounds of gates opening followed by sounds of the wooden gate and the iron gate closing down one after another. And then once again, the tunnel was enveloped by complete darkness, without a glimmer of light or the slightest of sound.
Linghu Chong felt another strong dizziness in his head. After staring blankly into the blackness for a moment, he decided to lie down on the bed for better concentration with his thoughts.
“The old man delivering food to me must have had strict orders to not exchange any word with me. It would be useless to shout at him,” he thought to himself. “This dungeon cell looks identical to the one Revered Mr. Ren lives in. I guess there are quite a few prison cells built under the Plum Manor. I wonder how many people they have locked up down here. If somehow I can connect with the Revered Mr. Ren, or with any other fellow prisoners here, by working together and uniting our efforts, who knows, we might be able to find a way out of here.”
At that thought, he extended his arm and knocked on the wall. But the clanking sounds clearly indicated that it was made of sheer steel. The sounds were both heavy and dull. Obviously there was no space on the other side of the wall except solid ground.
He walked to another wall and also knocked on it, but again, the responding sounds were both heavy and dull. Not willing to give up, Linghu Chong sat back on the bed and knocked on the wall behind him. Once again, the sounds were still the same.
Feeling his way along the walls, he carefully knocked on every inch of all the three walls, but other than the side of the wall with the iron door, this dungeon cell seemed to have been buried deep underground all alone. There, of course, had to be other dungeon cells underground, at lease one another, which had the Ren named old man locked in. But he had no clue where that dungeon cell might be or even how far it was from his own cell.
Leaning against the wall, he very carefully reviewed, in his head, the series of events that had happened before he fainted. He could remember how the old man’s sword moves became faster and faster as his shouting also became louder and louder. Then, all of a sudden, there was that earthshaking roar, right after which he lost his consciousness. But how on earth was he captured by the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan, and then sent to this prison cell, he couldn’t remember a thing about it.
“The four Manor Masters all appeared to be talented persons of poetic temperament on the surface, even their day-to-day amusements are related to Music, Gamesmanship, Calligraphy, and Painting these Four Arts. Who would have imaged that underneath their pretending skin, they were all filthy, contemptible characters who stop at no evil,” Linghu Chong thought to himself. “There were many vile characters like these in the Martial World and it shouldn’t have come to one’s surprise. But the strange thing was that these four Manor Masters did hold genuine interests in the art of music, gamesmanship, calligraphy, and painting, which would have been impossible for them to pretend. When Mr. Bald-Brush wrote the “General Pei Poem” on the wall, his writing was completely free from inhibition, something not a normal martial arts master could have accomplished.”
Then he thought, “Master once said, ‘Only people with extreme aptitude are capable of extreme evil.’ That is so true. The scam the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan pulled is indeed hard to guard against.”
Suddenly a thought struck him. He cried out and jumped back onto his feet, his heart pounding madly. “What happened to Big Brother Xiang? Has he fallen for their murderous scheme as well?” But then he thought, “Big Brother Xiang is a man of shrewdness and improvisation. He seems to have known about the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan’s conducts beforehand. As the Right Advisor of the Demon’s Cult, he has roamed the Martial World for many years. He won’t fall for their trap easily. And as long as he is not stranded by the Four Playfellows of Jiangnan, he will try to rescue me for sure. Even if I were to be locked up one thousand feet below ground, Big Brother Xiang would still be able to get me out of here. He has the ability to do that.” At that thought, he found himself much relaxed. Carrying a big grin on his face, he muttered to himself, “Linghu Chong! Linghu Chong! Did you know that you are a real coward? Scared into crying like a baby, where are you going to put your face if people find out about it?”
Feeling relieved, he stood up slowly, then immediately realized how thirsty and hungry he had been. “Too bad I threw a fit and knocked over the perfectly fine rice meal and the water. If I don’t stuff myself, after Big Brother Xiang rescue me out of here, where am I gonna find strength to battle the Four Skunks of Jiangnan? Ha-ha, that’s right, the Four Skunks of Jiangnan! How can such vile skunks be worthy of the title the ‘Four Playfellows of Jiangnan?’ Out of the four skunks, Mr. Black-White had to be the most sinister one, always wearing that blank, collected countenance on his face. He is probably the one who came up with the entire scheme. Once I break out of here, killing him will be the first thing on my to-do list. Mr. Paint, on the other hand, seems to be relatively frank; I might as well spare his despicable life. But in regard to his collection of great wines, ha-ha, I’ll drink them all up, leaving not even one drop behind.” At the thought of Mr. Paint’s great wine collection, he found his mouth burning with thirst.
“How long have I been unconscious? Why hasn’t Big Brother Xiang come to my rescue?” he wondered. Then another thought popped out, “Oh, no! If it were a fight one-on-one, Big Brother Xiang’s Kung Fu skills are more than sufficient to defeat any one of the Four Skunks of Jiangnan. But if those four skunks attack Big Brother Xiang all at once, then Big Brother Xiang would have a hard time winning the battle. Even if Big Brother Xiang gave full play to his ability and kill all four of them, it would be impossible for him to find the entrance of this underground dungeon. Who would have expected to find the dungeon entrance hidden underneath Mr. Huang-Zhong’s bed?”
Feeling completely worn out, he lay down on the bed when another thought suddenly came upon him. “The Revered Mr. Ren’s Kung Fu skills are undoubtedly greater than those of Big Brother Xiang’s, and his wit, experience and foresight also outclass that of Big Brother Xiang. Even he became a prisoner in the dungeon, what makes Big Brother Xiang so special that he could ensure victory? Straightforward gentlemen often fall prey of machination from the vile. It is well said that covert attack is far more difficult to defend against than overt attack. Since Big Brother Xiang hasn’t come to my rescue after such a long while, could he have fallen for their trap?” He instantly forgot all about his own trouble, but began worrying about Xiang Wentian’s safety, instead.
He let his thoughts went off into wild flights of fancy, and before long, he fell asleep. When he woke up again, he had no idea what time it was, and all he could see was still complete darkness.
“It is simply impossible for me to escape by myself,” he thought to himself. “If, unfortunately, Big Brother Xiang also falls for their scheme, then who else might come to free me? Master has announced to the entire world that I am expelled from the Huashan Sword School; of course people from the orthodox schools won’t be coming to my rescue. Ying-Ying, Ying-Ying….”
As soon as he thought of Ying-Ying, his spirit soared, and he sat up, thinking, “She asked Old Man to spread the word to the entire Martial World that she wants me killed; those people from the unorthodox schools of course won’t be coming to my rescue, but what about her, herself? If she learned that I am trapped here, she would surely come to save me. Many people from the unorthodox schools follow her command. All she needs to do is to let the word out. Ha-ha….” He suddenly chortled, thinking, “This girl is so bashful. What she fears the most is people saying that she likes me. Even if she does come to my rescue, she would surely come alone and would never ask for help from anyone. And if someone learns that she is coming to save me, he most probably would lose his life because of that. Alas, what goes on in a girl’s thinking is truly incomprehensible. Like, for example, Little Apprentice Sister….”
As soon as Little Apprentice Sister came to his mind, his heart ached, and the feeling of grief and despair deepened. “Why am I hoping that someone might come and rescue me? By now, Little Apprentice Sister and junior apprentice brother Lin probably have already wedded. Even if I can get out of here somehow, what’s there to look for outside? It’s probably much better if I get locked up in this dark dungeon for the rest of my life and I never find out what happens outside.”
Once he figured out the benefit of being locked up in the dungeon, his worries seemed to have slipped away and he even felt somewhat pleased with the situation. But the elated feeling did not last long when he was soon overwhelmed with hunger and thirst. Haunted by the memories of the great enjoyments he had when he drank bowls after bowls of wine served with large steaks in the various wine houses, he decided it would still be better if he could get out of the dungeon, after all.
“Well, if Little Apprentice Sister wedded junior apprentice brother Lin, so what? I’ve already been pushed around by them many times, anyhow. I am already an invalid with none of my inner strength left in me. Doctor Ping said that I don’t have many days left. Even if Little Apprentice Sister is willing to marry me, I can’t marry her. How can I let her stay a widow the rest of her life?”
But deep in his heart, he still felt that even though he wouldn’t let Yue Lingshan marry him even if she wanted to, Yue Lingshan’s falling in love with Lin Pingzhi was just too agonizing for him to withstand. But what could he wish for? “I wish Little Apprentice Sister were still the same as before. I wish none of this had ever happened, and I would still be practicing sword arts with her in the waterfall atop Mount Huashan, and junior apprentice brother Lin never came to Mount Huashan, and Little Apprentice Sister and I would be happily spending the rest of our lives together. Alas, Tian Boguang, Peach Valley’s Six Fairies, apprentice sister Yilin….”
At the thought of Heng-Shan Sword School’s little Sister Yilin, he could no longer hold a straight face and a gentle smile crept onto his lips. “I wonder how this apprentice sister Yilin is doing right now,” he thought. “If she learns that I am locked up here, she must be very worried. Her Master undoubtedly wouldn’t allow her to come and save me after reading the letter from my Master, but she might ask her father, Monk No Commandment, to do it for her. Who knows, Monk No Commandment might even invite the Peach Valley’s Six Fairies to tag along. Ha, those seven are a total mess and would only mess things up even more. But having people coming for my rescue is still better than having no one paying any attention.”
When he thought of the Peach Valley’s Six Fairies’ constant nagging and arguing, he couldn’t help but grin. When they were around him in the past, he did belittle the six brothers somewhat, but at this point in time, how he wished they could be accompanying him inside the prison cell. Their unintelligible remarks would have sounded like heavenly music to his ears at the moment. He let his thoughts run wild and soon dozed off once again.
In the pitch black dungeon cell he had no way of knowing the time. In his wooziness, he noticed a glimmer of faint light coming though the squared-shaped opening. Linghu Chong was ecstatic. He sat up immediately, his heart thumping wildly, thinking, “Who has come to rescue me?” But his joy did not last long. Soon came the sound of heavy and slow footsteps, apparently from the old man who brought food to him. Much dispirited, he let his body collapse back down.
“Ask those four skunks to come here; see if they’ve still got any guts to show their faces here!” Linghu Chong shouted.
He could hear the sound of the footsteps getting closer and closer. The light also became brighter and brighter. Then a wooden tray was pushed in from the squared-shaped opening on the door. On the wooden tray were a large bowl of rice and an earthen jar just like the last time. Linghu Chong had been fighting his hunger for a good while and his thirst had also become unbearable. After a slight hesitation, he reached out and took the wooden tray. As soon as the old man let go of the wooden tray, he turned around to walk away.
“Hey! Hey! Wait a second! I have something to ask you!” Linghu Chong called out.
But the old man completely ignored him. Sound of footsteps faded gradually as the old man dragged his feet along the way and the light also fainted gradually. Linghu Chong murmured a few curses and then picked up the earthen jar. Raising the jar next to his mouth, he poured the content into his mouth. Sure enough, the jar was filled with clear water. He drank up almost half jar of water in one breath before touching the bowl of rice. Piled on top of the rice were some vegetables. He tasted them in the dark and was able to tell there were some radish, tofu, and the like.
The same routine went on for seven or eight days. The old man would bring food to him once everyday and then collect the previous day’s utensils and water jar together with the jug for human waste. Regardless of what Linghu Chong said to him, his face remained expressionless. Then one day, as soon as Linghu Chong saw the light, he threw himself at the square-shaped opening and grabbed the wooden tray, shouting, “Why don’t you speak to me? Haven’t you heard me?”
The old man pointed at his own ear and shook his head, indicating that he was deaf. Then he opened his mouth. What Linghu Chong saw shocked him and he couldn’t help but gasp. The old man only had half of his tough left in his mouth; the scene was horrific.
“Someone cut your tongue off? Did the four god-damned Manor Masters do this to you?” Linghu Chong uttered.
The old man did not answer and simply pushed the wooden tray through the square-shaped opening. He obviously could not hear Linghu Chong’s words. Even if he could, he had no way of answering.
Linghu Chong was terrified. Even after the old man had long left, he couldn’t bring himself to eat. The terrifying image of the old man’s remaining portion of his tongue flashed again and again in front of his eyes.
“Those Four Skunks of Jiangnan are too evil,” he murmured to himself as hatred quickly filled his heart. “Unless I am locked up here for life, if one day Linghu Chong can escape from this dungeon, I swear that I’ll find the four skunks and one by one, I’ll cut off their tongues, drill their ears, and prick their eyes….”
Suddenly he thought of something from deep within his memories. “Could it have been them…them…?” He remembered that night how he blinded the fifteen masked men’s eyes outside of the monastery, but as to the origin of those people, he never found out. “Could it be that they locked me up in this dungeon cell to take vengeance for their suffering?” At that thought, he heaved a long sigh, and much of the grudge and hatred built up in the past many days evaporated instantly. “I blinded those fifteen men’s eyes. It’s only natural that they want their revenge,” he thought aloud.
Once his anger eased off, each day seemed to be a bit easier to get by. There was no difference between days and nights in the underground prison; Linghu Chong completely lost track of days and could only tell that each day was hotter than the previous day. He figured that it must have been mid-summer already. There was not even a whiff of wind in the small dungeon cell. The humid heat just got worse and worse everyday. Then the day came when the heat became simply unbearable. With steel chains shackled around his wrists and ankles, he could not take off his clothes completely. Having no other alternatives, he could only pull his shirt upward and pushed his pants downward as much as he could. After rolling the ragged mat on the bed and placing it to a corner of the bed, he lay down on the steel plate half naked. Immediately, he felt cool and refreshing and his perspiration also improved dramatically. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep. A few hours went by quickly. In the daze, when he felt the part of steel plate under his body had been heated up by him, he moved his body inward to find a cooler spot. Pressing his left palm on the steel plate, he vaguely felt some kind of lines of patterns carved onto the steel plate, but in the heavy drowsiness, he paid no attention to it and soon was sound asleep.
This nap was so comfortable; when Linghu Chong woke up, he felt completely refreshed. Not long after, the old man came as usual, delivering food to him. Linghu Chong had great sympathy for the old man, and every time when the old man pushed the wooden tray in through the square-shaped opening, he would always squeeze the old man’s finger gently or pat a few times on the old man’s hand to show his compassion. This time was no exception. After he took the wooden tray and was just about to retract his arms, all of a sudden, under the dim light, he spotted three words imprinted on the back of his left hand. It clearly said, “Woxing gets stranded.”
Linghu Chong was dumbfounded, having no clue where these words had come from. After a short contemplation, he hurriedly placed the wooden tray on the floor and reached out to feel the steel plate on the bed. Turned out the steel plate was covered with carved words, so thickly dotted, he couldn’t even tell how many there were. Linghu Chong understood at once. The words were carved onto the steel plate before he even came, but because the steel plate had always been covered by the mat, he was never aware of it, until yesterday when he slept half-naked directly on top of the steel plate. That was how the words got imprinted on the back of his hand. Extending his hand to his backside he felt his back and his behind, and he was unable to stifle a laugh. There were words marked on his skin everywhere he felt. Each character was about the size of a copper coin. The strokes were very deep, but the handwriting was hasty and careless.
By then the old man who delivered the food had been long gone and the dungeon cell was once again engulfed in complete darkness. Linghu Chong’s curiosity overpowered his hunger. After taking a few quick drinks from the earthen jar, he began feeling the words carved on the steel plate slowly from the very beginning, one character at a time, and read them out in a soft voice:
“I have been straightforward and willful all my life, killing people like flies. Imprisonment underneath the lake probably is the retribution I deserve. Only that when the old fellow Ren Woxing gets stranded…” At this character, Linghu Chong thought, “So the words ‘Woxing gets stranded’ came from this sentence.” He went on feeling the characters and the words continued, “…here, his extraordinary divine art that exceeds lofty will inevitably perish together with the old fellow’s skeleton, and people in the aftertime would not have known his exceptional and magical power. What a great pity that would be!”
Linghu Chong paused and raised his head. “Old fellow Ren Woxing![1] Old fellow Ren Woxing!” he pondered. “Then the man who carved these words of course is named Ren Woxing. So this man’s last name is Ren as well. I wonder if he is related to the Revered Mr. Ren in anyway.” But then he thought better of it, “This underground prison probably was built a long time ago, and the man who carved these words probably passed away decades or even centuries ago.”
He went on feeling the characters and the carvings read, “That’s why I am writing down the succinct principles and secrets of my divine art, so people from the aftertime can practice the divine art and gain the ability to freely roam the world, then although the old man’s flesh will parish, his name will become immortal. Number one, Sitting Meditation….” Then what followed were various breathing exercises and meditation techniques.
Ever since Linghu Chong learned the “Dugu Nine Swords,” he was only fond of sword art in the many types of Martial Arts, and since he had lost all his inner strength, when he recognized the words “Sitting Meditation,” his heart was filled with disappointment. He hoped that somewhere within the remaining words from which he would be able to find a form of exceptional sword art and he might as well learn this sword art as self-entertainment inside the dark dungeon cell. The hope of escape had become more and more distant and indistinct. If he didn’t find something to occupy himself, life in prison could be very difficult. But the words afterwards were always terms for inner strength cultivation such as “breathing,” “concentrate the spirit in the lower abdomen,” “redirecting the strength to Jin-Jing,” “Ren Channel” and the like. He followed the characters all the way to the end of the steel plate and still couldn’t find even one character resembling the character “sword.”
Linghu Chong found himself utterly frustrated. “What extraordinary divine art that exceeds the lofty? This man has played a good joke on me! It could have been any other type of Martial Arts; why did it have to be an art of inner strength cultivation, the only one I cannot practice? As soon as I try to gather my inner strength, the energy streams inside my chest and abdomen would roll over and over, clashing with each other. I’d be asking for trouble myself if practice inner strength cultivation.” He heaved a heavy sigh and picked up the rice bowl to eat, thinking to himself, “What kind of person is this Ren Woxing? He was certainly very arrogant, talking about exceeding lofty and roaming the world, as though he had no match in the entire world. This dungeon turned out to be used specifically to imprison superior Kung Fu Masters.”
When he first discovered the words carved on the steel plate, his excitement soared high, but by now he had the least interest left in him, thinking, “Heaven can really play tricks on mortals. I probably wouldn’t feel so down if I never found these words.” Then he thought, “If that Ren Woxing was as capable as how he boasted himself, why he was still stranded here and couldn’t get away? Evidently this underground prison is simply too durable and secure to break out. Regardless of how capable the captive is, once he is locked in, all he could do is to slowly and painfully wait for his end to come.” Having come to a conclusion, he paid no more attention to the words on the steel plate.
The city of Hangzhou almost turned into a steam box in the hot summer time. The dungeon was located deep underneath the lake. Without getting the heat from the direct sunshine, it should have been much cooler, but firstly, the dungeon had no ventilation, and secondly, it had always been overly humid, it turned out a different type of misery for its occupant. Everyday Linghu Chong would strip off as much clothing as he could and sleep on the steel plate half-naked. Whenever he moved his hand, he would feel the carved characters on the steel plate. As days went by, he had memorized many of the words and sentences unconsciously. One day when he was wondering where his Master, Master-Wife and Little Apprentice Sister might be and whether they had returned to Mount Huashan, he suddenly heard the sound of footsteps coming toward him. This time, the sound was quick and light, completely different from the sound made by the food-delivering old man. After spending many days locked inside, he had not been as anxiously looking forward to a rescuer, so when he suddenly heard the sound of a different set of footsteps, the feeling of surprise and joy instantly welled up his heart. He wanted to leap to his foot, but the ecstasy was so strong and overwhelming, he suddenly lost all his strength and could only lie still on the bed, not able to move a single muscle. The sound of footsteps quickly approached the iron-door.
A voice came from outside the iron-door, “Mr. Ren, it has been very hot in the last coupon of days. May I ask if you still enjoy your good health?”
As soon as Linghu Chong heard the voice, he recognized it instantly. It was the voice of Mr. Black-White. If he had come to his cell one month before, Linghu Chong would have shouted all kinds of invective at him with no scruples. However, after many days of imprisonment, his anger had mollified a great deal and he was able to think calmly.
“Why did he call me Mr. Ren? Has he come to the wrong cell?” he thought to himself and decided to remain silent and listen on.
“Every two months, I come and ask the revered mister the same question. Today is the first day of July, so please allow me to ask once again: Will the revered mister grant my request?” Mr. Black-White continued, his tone respectful and cautious.
Linghu Chong laughed inwardly. “He got the prison cells all mixed up and must have thought I am the Revered Mr. Ren. How careless!” But immediately after, he felt a chill in his heart. “Mr. Black-White obviously is the most meticulous one among the four Masters of the Plum Manor. It might be possible for Mr. Bald-Brush or Mr. Paint to mix up the prison cells, but how could Mr. Black-White actually make such a mistake? There must be a reason behind this.” With that in mind, he kept his silence.

[1] Ren Woxing means “go anywhere I wish” in Chinese.

If you can dream it, you can do it. I dreamed that I won the lottery in my nap...