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Democracy is only as good as the people, and information is only useful if those crunching the numbers possess sound, critical minds. Smartphones have allowed those in the furthest corners of the globe to have access to an almost unlimited library of ideas and data. How will they use it?

In America and other developed nations, unending streams of info have created a stubbornly chaotic new normal, with conspiracies growing like weeds and democracy coming to seem less like a village than a lynch mob. Will other people, unencumbered by our baggage, manage the modern arrangement in a saner way?

In a Washington Post piece, Caitlin Dewey writes of a recent Reddit Ask Me Anything with members of the Maasai tribe, who are already connected to the rest of us, which might be a blessing. An excerpt:

Earlier this week, Redditors were given a pretty neat opportunity: Two leaders from the Maasai tribe, a seminomadic people living in Western Kenya, signed on to do an “Ask Me Anything.” Redditors asked about the standard stuff: religious practices, diet, what people in the village do for fun. And then, inevitably, one user asked the chiefs to describe their favorite “kind of Internet porn.”

“They don’t believe it and don’t know what it is,” the chiefs’ interlocutor replied — to a giddily gleeful audience. “Don’t think or know about pornography. They are asking is it normal in America.”

The assembled Redditors went wild. It was their crowning achievement. They concluded that they had, in what may have been the Redditiest moment ever Reddited, introduced the concept of Internet porn to a culture that had not encountered it.

But what actually happened is slightly more complicated … and truthfully, more fascinating. Chief Joseph and Assistant Chief Leshan had, in fact, seen Internet porn before, because data-enabled mobile phones have actually become a huge part of even their remote, disconnected community.

As distant as the Maasai may seem from the modern world — the tribe has access to neither running water nor electricity, and many of the questions in the AMA centered on customs like drinking goats’ blood and circumcision without anesthetics — they do increasingly have access to forums like Reddit.

As Adam Schiller, the 24-year-old volunteer who set up the AMA, put it: “Imagine having porn before you have power.”•

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Vladimir Putin is friends to many deeply evil people, some in a minor way and others on a grander scale, so it would be no surprise if he were to add Donald Trump to the list. The DNC email hack and leak may have been very well perpetrated by the Kremlin, and perhaps enemy cyberterrorism could even prove a tipping point in the American election. Certainly it’s sickening for an aspirant to the White House to be “sarcastically” encouraging espionage against our country, but as Masha Gessen argues in the New York Review of Books, the sickening rise of the vulgar, fascistic clown to GOP prominence, perhaps even the Presidency, is the handiwork of U.S. citizens, not foreign powers. He was made in America. The writer also considers what four years of Trump rule would be like.

Gessen’s opening:

In the earlier months of the Donald Trump campaign, many people I knew asked me to comment on the similarities between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently I have been asked to comment on direct connections between Trump and Putin. And now, with the release of nearly 20,000 emails apparently stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s email server by Russian hackers, has come the suggestion that Putin may actually be interfering in the US election to help get Trump elected. These ideas—that Trump is like Putin and that he is Putin’s agent—are deeply flawed.

Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you—and you are blaming the neighbor’s kid, who threw a pebble at your window. That’s what the recent Putin fixation is like—a way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy.•

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Truly understanding the consciousness of a human being let alone a different species is impossible for us. Someday, though not soon, we’ll likely be able to map the brains of beasts (including us) and upload them into computers. Then perhaps an unparalleled sense of empathy will be possible (though it will bring along with it all sorts of complications). Currently, AI is as inept as Homo sapiens in making this magic happen.

Excerpts from: 1) Elizabeth Kolbert’s NYRB piece “He Tried to Be a Badger,” which looks at the lack of human understanding of our fellow creatures, and 2) Alan Smeaton’s Irish Times article, “Artificial Intelligence Is Dead,” which focuses on the limitations of machines achieving and perceiving consciousness.


From Kolbert:

In his classic essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to enter the pteropine mind. Bats, he notes, spend a lot of their time dangling upside down. At night, they swoop around, searching for bugs and issuing high-pitched chirps that allow them to navigate in the dark. A person can imagine what it’s like to hang by his toes from a rafter. He may also be able to envisage having webbed arms, and maneuvering via echolocation, and catching insects on the fly. From this, he can get a sense of what it would be like for him to behave like a bat. But still he would not know what it’s like tobe a bat. Even in his wildest dreams, a person has access only to the resources of the human mind, and here, according to Nagel, lies the rub: “Those resources are inadequate to the task.”

Nagel’s essay first appeared in 1974, in the journal The Philosophical Review. It could just as well have been titled “What Is It Like to Be an Aardvark?” or “What Is It Like to Be a Zebra?” The gap separating humans from bats is much the same as—or at least of a similar magnitude to—that which separates us from sloths and pangolins and manatees and meerkats. Like us, these animals are mammals, and we concede that they are capable of some sort of subjective experience. (“Too far down the phylogenetic tree,” Nagel observes, and “people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all.”)

Though Nagel wasn’t much interested in other species—his real subject was the irreducibility of consciousness—to those who were, his question became a kind of taunt, an elbow thrust across academic disciplines.•


From Smeaton:

Automatic recognition of image and video content is now much more than just recognising faces in pictures: it now assigns captions or tags to describe what is in the picture. Facebook uses this to make images accessible to the blind and Google Photos use it to tag personal photos.

IBM’s Watson system can read in text documents and answer questions about their content. Watson was fed the entire contents of Wikipedia and competed in the US game show Jeopardy against two previous champions. Watson won.

Jeopardy is like a cross between University Challenge and Only Connect, requiring extensive real world knowledge, and clever analysis of language. Watson is now being applied by IBM to medicine and scientific literature to help users understand the huge volume of scientific information being produced daily.

Think also of self-driving cars, soon to be navigating our roads, avoiding obstacles, including each other, in order to take us safely and economically to our destinations.

These examples, and many others, are all being touted as forms of AI.

But are they AI? Well, no actually. Companies like calling their technologies AI. It sounds better, it’s more futuristic, but it’s not AI: it’s actually data analytics.

IBM’s Watson, for example, achieves what it does by analysing sentences to draw connections across sentences, paragraphs, documents. What makes it clever is that it does this for really complex text, and it does it at enormous scale, processing vast amounts of data.

It is not reading and understanding in the way we envisaged an AI machine would.•

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China Robots Rising

Promises of a robotics revolution in China have been so overheated that there’s a credibility gap, but Saša Petricic of CBC News reports of real progress in what’s likely a necessary transition for the graying nation. Of course, the world isn’t exactly flat, and what’s needed in a state that’s severely restricted childbirth for decades may not be the best thing for other countries. The thing is, if China truly becomes Ground Zero for robots supplanting human labor, such a changeover will soon occur in places where there’s no shortage of people who need jobs. Victories in the macro can be awfully messy in the micro.

An excerpt:

Supply of cheap labour drying up

The industrial robots might also solve a growing problem: China’s dwindling supply of cheap, low-skilled labour. For three decades, that was the magic ingredient that pushed this economy to become the second biggest in the world. Millions of labourers left the countryside and flooded the industrial cities, lifting themselves out of poverty and their children into the middle class.

But now, there aren’t enough of those children. The population is aging. The so-called demographic dividend is fading.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to recruit workers and to keep them,” said Chen. “This work is intense and tiring, so we have to pay people more and more to lure them and keep them.”
The wage in this plant is around $1,200 a month, more than double the average in this region.

Young people, especially, are turning away from the tedious, repetitive factory work their parents sought.

And as overall wages have been skyrocketing in China at a rate of 10 per cent a year, the cost of industrial robots has been plummeting. It cost the Ying Ao factory about $4 million to install the nine robots, about the same amount as a year’s worth of salaries for the 256 workers they replaced. 

The cost is expected to drop by a further 20 per cent worldwide in the next decade, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group.

“This is the future of ‘Made in China,'” said Zhang Tao, the deputy manager for intelligent manufacturing in the hub city of Foshan. “I think it may be too optimistic to say robots will replace humans in three years … but you could say there will be much more co-operation.”•

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From the April 2, 1856 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Roughly five years ago, Google’s Larry Page pronounced that “eventually you’ll have the implant,” speaking of a chip added to the human brain to enhance intelligence and memory and more. It’s not without precedent for hardware to shrink and be implanted inside of us. Pacemakers were external and the size of ovens before they slid inside chests and heads. Of course, that hardware regulated only biological processes, not thoughts and knowledge. I think it inevitable that such enhancement is realized in one form or another, but it’s important to remember that those who are more intelligent are not necessarily morally superior.

From Allen Cone at UPI:

WASHINGTON, July 26 (UPI) — A third of U.S. adults in a recent Pew Research Center survey said they’d be “enthusiastic” about a brain chip to enhance their thinking power.

The survey of 4,726 adults examined public attitudes about three emerging technologies that could improve a person’s health, cognitive ability or physical capacity. 

Responses showed that a majority of American adults are uneasy, or “worried” about all three. But in all three cases, at least a third of respondents were “enthusiastic.”

–Using implanted brain chips to boost our thinking power: 69 percent worried vs. 34 percent enthusiastic.

–Editing the genes of babies to eliminate hereditary flaws and diseases: 68 percent worried vs. 49 percent enthusiastic.

–Transfusing synthetic blood to give people much greater speed, strength and stamina: 63 percent worried vs. 36 percent enthusiastic.•

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Donald Trumpis an American Berlusconi at the very least and perhaps a Mussolini, but a fascist’s rise to power doesn’t happen on its own–it takes a village. Joining strange bedfellows James Baker, Peter Thiel, Mike Ditka, Chachi and the underwear model in support of a Trump Administration is Julian Assange, Wikileaks very own alleged Bill Cosby. One of the main things making Assange’s posture as a journalist dicey is the fear he would used hacked information to service his own political beliefs and personal feuds, not hold all parties involved to the same ideal. He’s now admitted as much, saying he timed the email release about the DNC to try to enable a Trump victory. It’s a perversion of democracy, though I suppose you have to credit Assange for his transparency.

From Charlie Savage at the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Six weeks before the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks published an archive of hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of the Democratic convention, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, foreshadowed the release — and made it clear that he hoped to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency.

Mr. Assange’s remarks in a June 12 interview underscored that for all the drama of the discord that the disclosures have sown among supporters of Bernie Sanders — and of the unproven speculation that the Russian government provided the hacked data to WikiLeaks in order to help Donald J. Trump — the disclosures are also the latest chapter in the long-running tale of Mr. Assange’s battles with the Obama administration. 

In the interview, Mr. Assange told a British television host, Robert Peston of the ITV network, that his organization had obtained “emails related to Hillary Clinton which are pending publication,” which he pronounced “great.” He also suggested that he not only opposed her candidacy on policy grounds, but also saw her as a personal foe. 

At one point, Mr. Peston said: “Plainly, what you are saying, what you are publishing, hurts Hillary Clinton. Would you prefer Trump to be president?” 

Mr. Assange replied that what Mr. Trump would do as president was “completely unpredictable.” By contrast, he thought it was predictable that Mrs. Clinton would wield power in two ways he found problematic.•

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Miss Cleo, who seemed to be 72 twenty years ago, just died at 53.

The TV infomercial “seer” came to prominence in a time not so long ago when people had landlines and still talked on the phone and listened to each other’s voices, even one enlivened by a faux Jamaican accent. The Ron Poppeil of psychic powers, Cleo was a fake, obviously, and only fools could have believed it a good idea to pay a stranger 99 cents a minute for life advice because a woman in a headdress on TV urged them to. Enough of the gullible retained lawyers, however, and eventually the Federal Trade Commission interceded on their behalf against the Psychic Readers Network, though Miss Cleo was never charged with any wrongdoing.

The opening of her smart New York Times obituary penned by Katie Rogers:

Youree Dell Harris, whose Jamaican-accented character Miss Cleo was the face (and voice) of ubiquitous psychic hotline commercials in the late 1990s before the company was fined by the federal government, died on Tuesday in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 53.

The cause was cancer, William J. Cone Jr., a lawyer for Ms. Harris, said in a statement.

Ms. Harris first entered the pop culture zeitgeist in the late ’90s, arriving with a humble set of tools built for late-night TV audiences: a deck of tarot cards, a skeptical facial expression and an oft-uttered catchphrase — “Call me now!” 

As a vividly colored background swirled or candles burned, Miss Cleo sat and provided counsel to often-sheepish callers. Many of the commercials followed a cheating-lover theme:

“Who asked you to go out of town, the stupid young one or the married one?” she asked a caller in one commercial.

“The married one,” the caller answered.

“That’s what me thought,” Miss Cleo said with a knowing nod. 

The commercials made her a star of the Psychic Readers Network. The Miss Cleo character also inspired spoofs on late-night TV and gave Ms. Harris other business opportunities, including a book, Keepin’ It Real: A Practical Guide for Spiritual Living. She voiced a character in a 2002 video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. 

But her fame also led to questions about her past.•

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Paddy Chayefsky, that brilliant satirist, offered a spectacular pre-Beale rant on the Mike Douglas Show in 1969. It starts with polite chatter about the success of his script for Marty but quickly transitions into a much more serious and futuristic discussion. The writer is full of doom and gloom, of course, during the tumult of the Vietnam Era; his best-case scenario for humankind to live more peacefully is a computer-friendly “new society” that yields to globalization and technocracy, one in which citizens are merely producers and consumers, free of nationalism and disparate identity. Well, some of that came true. All the while, he wears a fun, red lei because one of his fellow guests is Hawaii Five-0 star Jack Lord. Gwen Verdon, Lionel Hampton and Cy Coleman share the panel.

Chayefsky joins the show at the 7:45 mark.

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The messenger is supposed to bring the truth, not his or her wishes. It was more than 50 years ago when Marshall McLuhan predicted a Global Village, and those who believed the theorist was happy about this development were listening, at best, with one ear. The prospect frightened him

McLuhan feared the whole world being connected, thought it an invitation for mayhem, rightly believing local skirmishes would be played out on a gigantic stage. Believing a flatter world will be a more peaceful one assumes that everyone is driven by money, not ideology, not madness. 

Everything seems to arrive with more speed and regularity now, social justice and sorties alike. The whole world is in you pocket now, and it’s exploding.

Excerpts from 1)  Mathieu von Rohr’s Spiegel essay “Apocalypse Now,” and 2) Nicholas Carr’s Rough Type post “The Global Village of Violence.”


From von Rohr:

We are living in an age of shocks and crises that could well be traumatizing in their rapid succession and concentration, since it’s not yet clear whether they’re only a temporary jolt or the beginning of a trend with no end in sight. Of course, the sheer number of conflicts has remained constant in recent years. But there is much indication that we find ourselves in a new era of global instability. The biggest geopolitical stories of our time are the destabilization in the Middle East, the European security order and the European Union. In addition, there has been a societal shift in many Western countries: Many citizens are angry at the elites, because they see themselves as victims of globalization, free trade and migration. This anger has enabled the rise of political movements from the fringe to the mainstream in only a few years: Donald Trump, the Brexit movement, Front National and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The classic political camps are dissolving as the battle between the political left and the right is replaced by one between Isolationists and Internationalists.

Every now and then, there are phases in international politics during which more happens in the span of a few weeks than would otherwise happen in decades. Do 2014 and 2016 fall into that category? They’re not comparable to the most dramatic phases of the past century, when both World Wars broke out; nor are they anything like 1989, when the Cold War ended and the world order was rearranged. It’s also unclear whether this year will end with the same chaotic violence it started with.

But it is rather likely that global insecurity will become the new status quo.•


From Carr:

We assume that communication and harmony go hand in hand, like a pair of flower children on a garden path. If only we all could share our thoughts and feelings with everyone else all the time, we’d overcome our distrust and fear and live together peaceably. We’d see that we are all one. Facebook and other social media disabuse us of this notion. To be “all one” is to be dissolved — and for many people that is a threat that requires a reaction.

Eamonn Fitzgerald points to a recently uploaded video of a Canadian TV interview with Marshall McLuhan that aired in 1977. By the mid-seventies, a decade after his allotted minutes of fame, McLuhan had come to be dismissed as a mumbo-jumbo-spewing charlatan by the intelligentsia. What the intelligentsia found particularly irritating was that the mumbo jumbo McLuhan spewed fit no piety and often hit uncomfortably close to the mark.

Early on in the clip, the interviewer notes that McLuhan had long ago predicted that electronic communication systems would turn the world into a global village. Most of McLuhan’s early readers had taken this as a utopian prophecy. “But it seems,” the interviewer says, with surprise, “that this tribal world is not very friendly.”•

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Think Ray Kurzweil is brilliant, though I have many disagreements with him, especially what I feel is the increasingly frantic timeline for his outré predictions. The futurist likes to tout his amazing record for accuracy as a prognosticator, but there have been jaw-dropping clunkers and there’ll likely be more. Additionally, his belief that ingesting thousands of dollars of supplements daily will enable him to survive until eternal life is possible–he thinks that day is very soon, of course–seems likewise foolhardy.

Two things I agree with Kurzweil about: 1) The world seems worse when tools allow us to better gather information about injustice, and 2) Sooner or later, we’ll increase human intelligence through bioengineering, even if the specter of such currently freaks out people

From Todd Bishop at Geekwire:

On the effect of the modern information era: People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

Why machines won’t displace humans: We’re going to merge with them, we’re going to make ourselves smarter. We’re already doing that. These mobile devices make us smarter. We’re routinely doing things we couldn’t possibly do without these brain extenders.•

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I don’t blame anyone for being a capitalist in America, not a Carnegie or a Kardashian or any lower-case striver. But there’s always been something squeamish about those who mix aspirationalism with evangelism, and that belief system has never been more pronounced than right now, with the “prosperity gospel” movement having made a special guest appearance at last week’s Republican National Convention in the person of Rev. Mark Burns, who loves Jesus Christ, Donald Trump and Benjamin Franklin, in some order.

From Jack Jenkins at Think Progress:

A NEW KIND OF RELIGIOUS KINGMAKER

Burns is not your rank-and-file right-wing evangelical minister, but a preacher of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a loose but growing Christian movement that teaches followers they can become wealthy and successful through faith — and by giving money to their church. Although “health and wealth” clerics head up churches that boast memberships in the tens of thousands, they have historically avoided divisive political conversations.

That was, at least, until the rise of Trump. In a twist that has perplexed and angered many leaders of the traditional Religious Right, the mogul has surrounded himselfwith a cadre of jet-setting prosperity gospel preachers throughout his campaign, snubbing the old-time religion of traditional conservative Christians in favor of the glitzy theology of ministers who share his adoration of the Almighty Dollar.

And now, with Burns speaking before the RNC, the prosperity gospel — long dismissed by progressive and conservative Christians alike as flawed or even heretical — is having its political moment.

“This is the culmination of several decades of building political capital within the prosperity gospel movement,” Kate Bowler, an expert on the prosperity gospel and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, told ThinkProgress. “This is a new political moment for the prosperity gospel — it’s a really remarkable moment.”•


“We ar electing a person in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ.”

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Our visual understanding of prehistoric megafauna and other creatures is aided greatly by the work of Charles R. Knight, the painter who gained nationwide attention beginning in the 1920s for his interpretations of dinosaurs and birds long extinct. He certainly couldn’t work from life or memory or photographs, so he became a hunter of facts, an interviewer of scholars, a measurer of skeletons. For an article in the July 31, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reporter Frank J. Costello visited the paleoartist in his Upper West Side Manhattan studio and studied his process. The piece’s opening below.

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Capturing greatness is rare enough, recapturing it even more unlikely. 

Someday Silicon Valley will also founder, the way former Industrial Era powers Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Detroit did. Clusters built around a narrow type of enterprise almost always do, since specialization can be wonderfully beneficial for a while but has a relatively short shelf life. Once the boom goes bust, bringing it back is almost impossible. Cities like New York that are open for business in a broad way have a better shot at continued prosperity, their fickleness and willingness to constantly tear down an asset.

From the Economist piece “Silicon Valley 1.0“:

Cleveland is a reminder that decline can be as self-sustaining as success. There are three reasons why clusters fail. One is that they over-specialise in products that are later improved elsewhere. Sheffield stuck to steelmaking even as others learned to make it better and cheaper. A second is that they complacently fail to upgrade their productivity. Detroit succumbed to Japanese carmakers in the 1970s and 1980s because it thought more about providing its cars with ornate fins (and its workers with gold-plated benefits) than it did about their performance. The third is that they suffer from an external shock from which they fail to recover, as could be the case with the City of London in the wake of Brexit.

Naomi Lamoreaux, an economic historian at Yale University, says Cleveland falls into the third category. It led in a wide variety of industries into the 1920s, including cars, chemicals, paints and varnishes, machine tools and electrical machinery as well as iron and steel. It spent money on R&D. But then came a series of external shocks. The Depression destroyed the local financial institutions that had supported Cleveland’s start-ups. Regulations adopted in its wake gave New York’s banks such a competitive advantage that local capital markets withered. The federal government’s wartime policy of dispersing manufacturing industry eroded the city’s industrial base.

Fanning the flames of hate

Cleveland’s decline became self-reinforcing. Firms downsized, closed or relocated. The inner city fell prey to crime and dysfunction. The white middle-class moved to suburbia. Politicians responded not with pragmatic ideas for reform but by whipping up anger and resentment, which only hastened white- and business-flight. Dennis Kucinich, the mayor in 1977-79, who much later ran for president, refused to privatise the electric utility and, in 1978, took the city into bankruptcy. A once-proud city was mocked as “the mistake on the lake”. To cap it all, Cleveland paid the price for its earlier successes: by 1969 the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire, an event that is still celebrated in one of its local brews, Burning River Pale Ale.

The city’s story is also a warning that rebuilding clusters is fiendishly hard.•

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The writer Calum Chace, an all-around interesting thinker, is conducting a Reddit AMA based on his new book, The Economic Singularity, which sees a future–and not such a far-flung one–when human labor is a thing of the past. It’s certainly possible since constantly improving technology could make fleets of cars driverless and factories workerless. In fact, there’s no reason why they can’t also be ownerless. 

What happens then? How do we reconcile a free-market society with an automated one? In the long run, it could be a great victory for humanity, but getting from here to there will be bumpy. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

So it seems to me that most of the benefit of capitalism for working-class people come from jobs. Companies need a workforce, and are willing to pay for it. So a lot of the profit gets spread around to a lot of people.

If a few companies could break this model on a large scale, by leveraging automation to allow a relatively small core group of employees to operate a national or international corporation, then that would force everyone to do it in order to stay competitive.

I’m assuming that this is some of what you’re talking about in the book (just guessing from the title and an amazon summary).

I could see the first fully (>98%) automated company making waves in a decade or two. People on /r/futorology like to wax utopian, but a company with <100 employees and billions in automated infrastructure isn’t going to allow themselves to be operated for the public good. The product might be cheap, but it’s not free, and that company is no longer employing enough people to matter.

They’ll have a global reach (through subcontracted shipping companies) coupled with automated vehicles that don’t need to sleep or visit family. They can legally exist in whichever country is cheapest tax-wise, and still destroy the competition on the other side of the globe.

So, lots of rambling. But that’s my question, basically.In your opinion, what might the replacement for capitalism look like?

Calum Chace:

Yes, I think you’ve identified exactly the first stage of the argument. Intelligent machines are probably going to render most of us unemployable.

So how shall we all live? The answer, initially at least, will be some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) which is often discussed here and at a sister Reddit page specifically on the subject. UBI will have to be paid for by taxes, and that raises some tricky questions about how the rich people who pay the taxes are going to respond.

I am fundamentally optimistic. The people who are going to be richest are those who own the AI, since that will generate much of the value throughout the economy. The likes of Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates etc etc don’t seem to me to be primarily motivated by money, but by an excitement about the future and a desire to see it arrive sooner.

So I don’t think they will want the rest of us to starve. The mechanism by which UBI is phased in, and how it pans out across international boundaries are going to take a lot of detailed planning. Which we haven’t started yet.


Question:

I also think people are underestimating VR & crowdsourcing’s role.

If VR makes things like microtasking more attractive to do and enables the microtaskers (crowd-workers) to do more, then flexwork/ gig-work might become even more popular. I have an ebook that I’m finishing up now that explores this a little bit (& even ties it to robotics).

Do you have any guesses for VR and the future of work?

Calum Chace:

Yes, I talk about the gig economy (microtasking) in my book. A report by PwC says that 7% of US adults are already engaged in it. I’m not sure whether the experience is so great for most of them at the moment, though. Are they “micro-entrepreneurs” or “instaserfs” – members of a new “precariat”? Either way, it will probably get bigger.

It’s hard to avoid waxing lyrical about the potential impact of VR. Oculus Rift has made nothing like the splash since its launch this year a lot of people (including me) expected it to, but it’s probably just obeying Amara’s Law, that we tend to over-estimate the effect of a technology in the short run and under-estimate the effect in the long run.

In that long run I can well imagine VR bringing about the long-awaited death of geography, but it’s probably going to take a while yet. Meanwhile, I’m not sure it will have that much impact on overall levels of employment, other than adding some because of all the virtual experiences that need to be created.


Question:

I think the outcome can be wonderful: a world of radical abundance.

Calum Chace:

I very much agree with you there, I think that all (7 billion + of us globally) are going to be vastly richer from all of this.

For example, when AI can administer the expertise of top doctors & consultants to everyone on the planet for pennies, this is wealth unlike humanity has ever known before.

I wonder though, on the road to this future, are we in for some quite chaotic breaks from the past.

Exactly, and the sooner we start thinking seriously about where we want to get to and how best to get there, the more likely we are to make the journey successfully.

I think the more people who are aware of what is coming, the better. I’m encouraged by the remarkable sea-change in awareness of AI progress that has already occurred. The publication of Bostrom’s Superintelligence led to high-profile comments by the three wise men (Hawking, Musk and Gates) and the publication of Ford’s Rise of the Robots was another seminal moment.

Like a lot of people here, I’ve been talking about the huge importance of AI to anyone who would listen for years and years. I got a lot of benign virtual pats on the head. Now people are listening.

Self-driving cars will probably be the canary in the coal mine. Once they are common sights, people won’t be able to avoid thinking seriously about what is coming.

But we need a positive narrative about the good things that can happen so that the response isn’t panic, or a rush into the embrace of the next populist demagogue who happens along.•

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Rob Rhinehart’s Soylent is a tougher sell in developed countries with endless food magazines and cooking shows, though those chugging Red Bulls and wolfing down Devil Dogs shouldn’t look askance at the meal-replacement beverage. The beverage would seem to hold special promise as a sustenance provider in places where scarcity still reigns supreme.

Two excerpts follow from Tom Braithwaite’s smart Financial Times profile of Rhinehart, who somehow manages to live off the grid while living in Los Angeles.


Rhinehart is convinced we will start to abandon three meals a day and instead sip functional foods whenever we need to. “Being wrapped up in breakfast, lunch, dinner came from an agricultural society and the industrial revolution. We don’t work on farms, we don’t work on assembly lines and I don’t think we should eat like we do. I think people will switch to eating when hungry rather than eating on a schedule.”

He stresses this does not mean the end of eating for pleasure. “You get home from work, you’re not in the mood to cook or you’re running out the door in the morning, you don’t have time, but then Friday or Saturday night rolls around and you want to go out with your friends. That’s what I think we’ll move towards.”•


One foot in the future and one foot in the past seems to sum up Rhinehart. His latest project is building a home in Los Angeles, off the grid. This is surprisingly possible in one of the world’s most urban environments. He found disused land in an unfashionable part of town and plonked a shipping container in it, which he now lives in.

This might be eccentric but it’s not a millionaire’s whimsy. The land was cheap because it is not served by electricity or water; the shipping container was $1,500. Rhinehart proudly says he is not wealthy — whatever his paper worth, he draws a fairly modest salary.

“Do you wanna see a picture?” he says, passing me his phone. “The only drawback is the area’s still a little rough, so it got graffitied.”

The container’s power is solar-generated. Of course there is no need for a kitchen. Rhinehart is currently relying on a “Porta Potty” but has hopes for advances in new toilets that vaporise waste. He once tried to save water by taking an antibiotic to minimise trips to the toilet. “I massacred my gut bacteria,” he wrote in his blog.•

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The VCR, which helped the masses shift time and become programmers, is no more, with the last company that produced the technology, Japan’s Funai Corporation, bowing from the anachronistic business.

Excerpts follow from 1) Jonah Engel Bromwich’s New York Times article “The Long, Final Goodbye of the VCR,” and 2) Lillian Ross’ 1970 New Yorker piece (subscription required) about the Cartrivision system, which offered a proto-Netflix service.


From Bromwich:

In 1956, Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company introduced whatits website calls “the first practical videotape recorder.” Fred Pfost, an Ampex engineer, described demonstrating the technology to CBS executives for the first time. Unbeknown to them, he had recorded a keynote speech delivered by a vice president at the network.
 
“After I rewound the tape and pushed the play button for this group of executives, they saw the instantaneous replay of the speech. There were about 10 seconds of total silence until they suddenly realized just what they were seeing on the 20 video monitors located around the room. Pandemonium broke out with wild clapping and cheering for five full minutes. This was the first time in history that a large group (outside of Ampex) had ever seen a high-quality, instantaneous replay of any event.”

Fred Pfost “First Public Video Tape Recorder Demonstrations” (Web 84) Video by Audio Engineering Society (AES)
 
At the time, the machines cost $50,000 apiece. But that did not stop orders from being placed for 100 of them in the week they debuted, according to Mr. Pfost. “This represented an amount almost as great as a year’s gross income for Ampex,” he wrote.
 
The first VCRs for homes were released in the 1960s, and they became widely available to consumers in the 1970s, when Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS formats began to compete. VHS gained the upper hand the following decade; but Sony stopped producing Betamax cassette tapes only in 2016.•


From Ross’ conversation with Cartrivison executive Samuel Gelfman, who realized way back then what a disruptive technology he was working with:

“What is Cartrivision?” we asked.

“One of the greatest instruments of social change–the greatest, I would say, since the printing press,” Mr. Gelfman said. “Our set is a color-television set, but it’s also a cartridge-television. Whit this set, you can have your own cartridge library. You slip a cartridge in the slot, press the button, and watch up to two hours of your own choice of movie. A great football game. Anything you want. What’s more, we’ve built in an off-the-air recorder to pick up shows when you’re not at home. It doubles as a camera with a portable microphone. You can make your movies and have instant replay. We’ll sell you the set for between eight and nine hundred dollars. Our cartridges–blank ones–from nine-ninety-eight for a fifteen-minute tape to twenty-four ninety-eight for a two-hour tape. The movie cartridges we’ll rent. Three dollars for overnight. What’s important is for the first time we’re going to be able to provide what you want to see. You don’t have to worry about sponsors anymore.”•


Here’s a What’s My Line? episode in which the system is demonstrated by company spokesperson Art Rosenblatt in 1972, the year it came to the market and the one before it was pulled.

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

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This week, those Americans who enabled Donald Trump descended upon Cleveland for the GOP Convention.

This week, those Americans who enabled Donald Trump descended upon Cleveland for the GOP Convention.

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  • Does it matter that we might be living in a simulation? Well, sure.
  • Immortalist Aubrey de Grey conducted a Reddit AMA.

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Unlike most Americans who aspire to the Presidency, Donald Trump would like to break the world’s kneecaps with a ball-peen hammer. 

The 2016 GOP convention, political torture porn, has at last concluded, and its main kooky message lingers: The world is a dangerous place, especially for those white and blue, and at an extremely evil time like this, we need someone even more evil, a remorseless figure who will do unthinkable things, and that person is strongman Trump. He will protect us, this orange supremacist, this synthesis of Mussolini and Mayor McCheese

Never mind that the GOP flag-bearer’s behavior resembles that of a mentally ill person, a delusional sociopath, or that crime and economic statistics make it plain that the last eight years have been very good to America, from low murder rates to high Wall Street earnings. Even wealth distribution, that stubborn ill, has been adjusted somewhat under President Obama. Wage rates remain sluggish as they’ve long been, but it’s a mistake to view this election as one about money. It’s identity politics to the utmost and the attempt by one awful person to sell a violent culture war. It could work. If Trump loses horribly, it’s a death in the gutter for the modern GOP. If he wins, our entire country will have fallen from the curb.

The opening of Ezra Klein’s sobering Vox piece about the horrifying rise of an American fascist:

Tonight, Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States.

And I am, for the first time since I began covering American politics, genuinely afraid.

Donald Trump is not a man who should be president. This is not an ideological judgment. This is not something I would say about Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio. This is not a disagreement over Donald Trump’s tax plan or his climate policies. This is about Trump’s character, his temperament, his impulsiveness, his basic decency.

Back in February, I wrote that Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.

He has had plenty of time to prove me, and everyone else, wrong. But he hasn’t. He has not become more responsible or more sober, more decent or more generous, more considered or more informed, more careful or more kind. He has continued to retweet white supremacists, make racist comments, pick unnecessary fights, contradict himself on the stump, and show an almost gleeful disinterest in building a real campaign or learning about policy.

He has, instead, run a campaign based on stoking fear and playing to resentment. His speech tonight invoked a nightmarish American hellscape that doesn’t actually exist. His promise to restore order made him sound like the aspiring strongman his critics fear him to be. “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.”•

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From the July 3, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Every time I start to criticize Elon Musk, I remember to be thankful he’s not Peter Thiel.

Walter Isaacson famously named Benjamin Franklin when searching for an historical antecedent for Musk, but the Tesla-Space X-Hyperloop-aspiring-Martian billionaire seem to have his heart set on being a multi-planetary Thomas Edison.

In his just-released “Master Plan, Part Deux,” Musk expounds on a vision that would be daunting if it was being attempted by a wonderfully funded Bell Labs or NASA or even a superpower government let alone a struggling private company. The sections on solar roofs and autonomous transport are particularly fascinating.

As Will Oremus writes in a Slate column, one aspect of Musk’s ambitions didn’t make big news despite having world-changing implications. An excerpt:

On Wednesday night, Elon Musk announced a new master plan for his company. It is the philosophical successor to his original master plan, published 10 years ago when few had heard of Tesla and fewer cared. If that first plan seemed implausibly audacious, this one borders on schizophrenic—a compendium of goals so futuristic and disparate that it would be a marvel for any company to achieve one of them, let alone all. They include (deep breath):

  • Building at least four all-new models: a “new kind of pickup truck,” a compact SUV, a semi truck, and a bus-like mass transport vehicle that delivers its passengers from door to door. They’ll all be fully electric, of course.
  • Developing and implementing a fully autonomous driving system that will require no human involvement. The system will have such redundancy that a failure of any part of the driving system will not compromise its ability to navigate safely.
  • Creating a car-sharing platform through which Tesla owners can, at the tap of a button, rent out their self-driving vehicle to a “Tesla shared fleet” when they’re not using it. Others can then summon the car for a ride, generating income for its owner which can help to pay off the price of buying it.
  • Merging Tesla and SolarCity, the country’s largest solar power company, and together developing a seamlessly integrated system that can both capture and store solar power on your rooftop, turning your home into its own energy utility. And then “scale that throughout the world.”

Not even cracking the top four objectives in the new plan is Musk’s recently stated intention to essentially reinvent the mass production process, developing a heavily automated factory that can churn out cars five to 10 times more efficiently than before. In other words, Musk writes, Tesla is designing “the machine that makes the machine—turning the factory itself into a product.”•

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When I first became aware of Chuck Close’s portraiture, long before his artistic and personal metamorphosis, the work immediately seemed to me pointillism for the computer age, his very human hand–seriously compromised following a massive seizure–somehow capable of producing pixels. 

As amazing as Close’s parade of faces are, it would be different, even troubling, for some if they’d been painted with a computer rather than a brush attached to flesh. They might be viewed as inferior even if the pictures looked exactly the same. That’s because we tend to value the skills we know more than emergent ones.

In “There Is No Difference Between Computer Art and Human Art,” a provocative Aeon essay, Oliver Roeder argues for the erasure of the line between algorithms making art and music and people doing so. He writes: “‘Computer art’ doesn’t really exist in an any more provocative sense than ‘paint art’ or ‘piano art’ does. The algorithmic software was written by a human, after all, using theories thought up by a human.”

Well there is some difference between the two, as there is between oral histories and those published by a printing press. That doesn’t mean the work with a digital tool attached is lesser, however. It can be greater.

An excerpt:

Visual art, too, has been subjected to algorithms for decades now.Two engineers created this image – probably the first computer nude – at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, somewhere geographically between Coltrane and Kim, in 1966. The piece was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

The New York Times reviewed one of the first exhibitions of computer art, in 1965 (just a few months after Coltrane’s recording session) featuring work by two scientists and an IBM #7094 digital computer, at a New York gallery, now long shuttered. ‘So far the means are of greater interest than the end,’ the Times wrote. But the review, by the late Stuart Preston, goes on to strike a surprisingly enthusiastic tone:

No matter what the future holds – and scientists predict a time when almost any kind of painting can be computer-generated – the actual touch of the artist will no longer play any part in the making of a work of art. When that day comes, the artist’s role will consist of mathematically formulating, by arranging an array of points in groups, a desired pattern. From then on, all will be entrusted to the deus ex machina. Freed from the tedium of technique and the mechanics of picture-making, the artist will simply ‘create’.

The machine is just the brush – a human holds it. There are, indeed, examples of computers helping musicians to simply ‘create’.•

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If you don’t count money, J. Paul Getty wasn’t a very rich man.

Wealthy beyond imagination back when a billion dollars was a billion dollars, Getty was a strange and miserly sort with five marriages and a procession of troubled heirs. His thriftiness, if you would call it that, seemed to come not from wisdom but from a dark place. The opening of a People article from 40 years ago about the man who, by some measures, had it all:

In deepening solitude, like some melancholy Dickensian recluse, Jean Paul Getty offers the frailest of shoulders on which to rest the title of World’s Richest Man. At 81, he speaks in a low, croaking monotone, his face a sunken mask of old age. When his left hand trembles violently from Parkinson’s disease, his right must come quivering to restrain it. And his conversation, fitful and laborious, trails off into lingering silences. 

But the fertile brain that assembled one of the oil world’s great empires has lost neither its cunning nor its grasp. During the current energy crisis—in which the value of Getty’s oil leases spirals astronomically as great ships laden with his liquid treasure bear it to the oil-parched industrial nations—the gnome of Surrey paces his Tudor palace, monitoring the nerve centers of the financial world. 

The son of a prosperous Minneapolis lawyer who moved to Oklahoma and promptly struck oil, Getty was only 21 when he began buying and selling oil leases himself. He made $40,000 his first year, and his first million a few months after that. When the Depression hit he had enough to buy millions of shares of collapsed oil stocks, acquiring fortunes in oil reserves and fresh cash. In 1949, just before seizing control of the giant Tidewater Oil Co., he arranged a deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Saud, predecessor of the present King Faisal, obtaining half-interest for the next 60 years in a raw swath of land called the Neutral Zone. The area was considered bleakly unpromising, but, typically, Getty brought in the gushers. Moving to London to be nearer his Middle East operations, he has never returned to America. 

Today, with enormous personal holdings in stock in the parent Getty Oil Co. and a controlling interest in nearly 200 other concerns, the octogenarian billionaire has accumulated wealth beyond precise calculation. Yet until 1957, when Fortune named him the richest living American, he was virtually unknown to the public. 

One reason, perhaps, is that he has never been inclined to philanthropy. No foundation bears his name, and he has indicated that when he dies his fortune will be plowed back into his businesses. 

“Money is like manure,” Getty once said. “You have to spread it around or it smells.” Often, in his case, this has been a dictum observed in the breach. Though he paid a modest fortune for Sutton Place, his 72-room mansion outside London, he prudently outfitted it with a pay telephone. “The guests won’t mind paying for their calls,’ he said, ‘and as for the deadbeats, I couldn’t care less.” He never accepts mail with postage due and rarely carries more than $25 in pocket money. He has been known to wait five minutes in order to get into a dog show at half price, and to avoid a restaurant rather than pay a cover charge. “I pay the going rate,” he explained, “but I don’t see any reason for paying more than you have to.”

Getty’s legendary parsimony extends even to eminent friends of long standing. He and the Earl of Warwick have lunched together regularly for 35 years. Lest either pay a bill out of turn, the two share a little black book in which they keep track of all their meetings, the cost of each lunch and whose turn it is to pick up the check.•


In the 1970s, the industrialist spoke on behalf of E.F. Hutton.

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Peter Thiel is the single best argument for a return to the draconian progressive tax rates of the Eisenhower Administration. A think-skinned, monopoly-loving billionaire Libertarian who cares way more for his ideology than, you know, actual humans, he’s gone so far as to make Gawker seem sympathetic. 

A gay immigrant as a grinning Republican and Trump delegate would be puzzling were it anyone, but it’s even more so for Thiel, who clearly doesn’t support most of the candidate’s lip service to populist policy. In an Inc. article, Jeff Bercovici attempts to explain the PayPal co-founder’s support of Trump with a theory he himself labels seemingly crazy: The journalist believes Thiel may be trolling democracy itself. Perhaps or maybe he just wants his taxes lowered. An excerpt:

It’s hard to believe Thiel is going all in on Trump only–or at least mainly–because he thinks Trump will make a good president. What might his real reason be?

I have a guess. It sounds crazy, but bear in mind we’re talking about someone who thinks there’s a real possibility he will never die; who pays college kids to drop out; who wants to establish a colony at sea free from the laws of any nation; who thinks capitalism and competition can’t coexist. If it doesn’t sound crazy to someone, it’s probably too quotidian to have issued from the mind of Peter Thiel.

I think Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump because he believes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to weaken America’s attachment to democratic government.

I’m not accusing Thiel of any ambitions he hasn’t more or less copped to. In an often-quoted 2009 essay, Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”•

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