Excerpts

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The echoes of Mussolini in Trump and the Nazis in the alt-right are blaring sirens to anyone familiar with European history in the two decades leading up to World War II. The differences between yesterday’s madness and today’s, however, are probably just as important to consider, from the tools used to forward a hateful agenda to the shifts in the targets of the animus to the new unholy alliances being forged.

In a Verso interview conducted by Grégory Marin, historian Enzo Traverso examines the appallingly racist, illiberal political movements that have emerged in the U.S. and Europe from what he terms the “fascist matrix.” The principal point he makes is that the new authoritarianism isn’t yet fully defined and where it leads may be the biggest of all threats.

The opening two exchanges:

Question:

Are Europe’s far-Right movements (the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary…) adopting the same codes as fascism or Nazism?

Enzo Traverso:

First of all, these movements do share common traits, including their rejection of the European Union, their xenophobia and their racism, in particular in its Islamophobic dimension. Beyond these markers, we can see notable differences. There are clearly neo-fascist or neo-Nazi movements, like Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, etc., whose radicalism is often linked to the extent of the crisis, even if in Greece the rise of Syriza did put a lid on this dynamic. As for France, the Front National does have a fascist matrix, and there are certainly neo-fascists in the party, but its discourse is no longer fascist. After all, it has made a considerable effort at ideological mutation, and that is one of the keys to its success. If it still advanced neo-fascist arguments it would not get a hearing, and could certainly not hope to reach the second round of the presidential election.

Question:

Why call these parties “from the fascist matrix” post-fascists and not-neo-fascists? How do you characterise this post-fascism?

Enzo Traverso:

It is a transitional category. Post-fascism is a concept that attempts to grasp a mutation process that is still underway; the FN is no longer a fascist movement, but it is still far-Right and xenophobic, and it has still not broken the umbilical cord that links it to its fascist matrix. We do not know what that will produce. This could end up — if the European Union were to break apart and the economic crisis were to deepen — transforming into a clearly fascist alternative. That has happened in the past. Or it could take on new characteristics and integrate into the system, like the Movimento Sociale Italiano did in the 1990s, becoming a component of the traditional Right. This is an open process, for within the tendency I call “post-fascist” there are also political movements born in recent years that are not fascist in origin, for instance UKIP in England or the Lega Nord in Italy, which are converging together with this current; indeed, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage have good relations with the Front National. This notion does not seek either to play down the danger or to make it more acceptable, but to understand it, the better to combat it more effectively.•

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An unqualified sociopath was elected President of the United States with the aid of the FBI, fake news, Russian spies, white supremacists and an accused rapist who’s holed up inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest. Writing that sentence a million times can’t make it any less chilling.

WikiLeaks’ modus operandi over the last couple of years probably wouldn’t be markedly different if it were in the hands of Steve Bannon rather than Julian Assange, so it’s not surprising the organization leaked a trove of (apparently overhyped) documents about CIA surveillance just as Trump was being lambasted from both sides of the aisle for baselessly accusing his predecessor for “wiretapping.” The timing is familiar if you recall that WikiLeaks began releasing Clinton campaign emails directly after the surfacing of a video that recorded Trump’s boasts of sexual assault. With all this recent history, is it any surprise Assange mockingly described himself as a “deplorable” when chiding Twitter for refusing verify his account?

The decentralization of media, with powerful tools in potentially every hand, has changed the game, no doubt. We’re now in a permanent Spy vs. Spy cartoon, though one that isn’t funny, with feds and hackers permanently at loggerheads. Which side can do the most damage? Voters have some recourse in regards to government snooping but not so with private-sector enterprises. In the rush to privatize and outsource long-established areas of critical services, from prisons to the military to intelligence work, we’ve also dispersed dangers.

From Sue Halpern’s New York Review of Books pieceThe Assange Distraction“:

In his press conference, Assange observed that no cyber weapons are safe from hacking because they live on the Internet, and once deployed are themselves at risk of being stolen. When that happens, he said, “there’s a very easy cover for any gray market operator, contractor, rogue intelligence agent to take that material and start a company with it. Start a consulting company, a hacker for hire company.” Indeed, the conversation we almost never have when we’re talking about cyber-security and hacking is the one where we acknowledge just how privatized intelligence gathering has become, and what the consequences of this have been. According to the reporters Dana Priest, Marjorie Censer and Robert O’Harrow, Jr., at least 70 percent of the intelligence community’s “secret” budget now goes to private contractors. And, they write, “Never before have so many US intelligence workers been hired so quickly, or been given access to secret government information through networked computers. …But in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show.” Much of this expansion occurred in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when the American government sought to dramatically expand its intelligence-gathering apparatus.

Edward Snowden was a government contractor; he had a high security clearance while working for both Dell and for Booz, Allen, Hamilton. Vault 7’s source, from what one can discern from Assange’s remarks, was most likely a contractor, too. The real connection between Snowden’s NSA revelations and an anonymous leaker handing off CIA malware to WikiLeaks, however, is this: both remind us, in different ways, that the expansion of the surveillance state has made us fundamentally less secure, not more.

Julian Assange, if he is to be believed, now possesses the entire cyber-weaponry of the CIA. He claims that they are safe with him while explaining that nothing is safe on the Internet. He says that the malware he’s published so far is only part of the CIA arsenal, and that he’ll reveal more at a later date. If that is not a veiled threat, then this is: Assange has not destroyed the source codes that came to him with Vault 7, the algorithms that run these programs, and he hasn’t categorically ruled out releasing them into the wild, where they would be available to any cyber-criminal, state actor, or random hacker. This means that Julian Assange is not just a fugitive, he is a fugitive who is armed and dangerous.•

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Malcolm Gladwell has a great many talents, but analyzing comedy and satire is apparently not among them. Unfortunately, he held forth on these topics in a recent conversation with economist Tyler Cowen.

The writer once derided satire for not being significant enough to prevent the rise of Nazism, failing to acknowledge that diplomacy, protest, church and media also failed to thwart this mass tragedy. All those institutions and activities have great value, even if they were depressingly unable to avert this particular horror.

Speaking to Cowen, Gladwell forwards the bizarre theory that Tine Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was great for the comedian’s career but made the politician “more acceptable and likable.” This is an absurd contention. If Katie Couric’s interview with Palin was a mortal wound, Fey’s imitation was the coup de grâce.

Gladwell’s judgment that the impersonation stemmed from Fey’s self-interest is peculiar. Certainly he writes his articles and books to improve his career, and he also does corporate speaking engagements, a very dicey move for a journalist, which I don’t believe Fey does. (Perhaps Gladwell donates all this money to charity, but it remains a potential conflict of interest.)

In the direct aftermath of the Presidential election, when New Yorker EIC David Remnick appeared on TV to warn against the normalization of Trump, he commented that although he believed Hillary Clinton would have been a great President, he thought it was wrong that she accepted huge fees for speaking engagements from investment banks. He probably should hold his staff to the same standard.

Gladwell’s criticism of Alec Baldwin is almost is as wrong-minded. SNL certainly deserves brickbats for allowing the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to host the show during his disgracefully racist campaign, but Baldwin’s characterization isn’t a superficial performance Gladwell describes. Well, at least it’s clear to him that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonation is greatness.

As for Cowen’s question to Gladwell about Baldwin’s Trump–Is it not sufficiently negative?–he should be asking himself that same query in response to his tepid comments about Peter Thiel, a former interview subject who aggressively enabled a sociopath into the White House. This Administration isn’t merely “flawed” as the economist labeled it in a recent Ask Me Anything. It’s utterly shameful and highly dangerous.

An excerpt:

On Tina Fey, Melisa McCarthy, and good satire

COWEN: It’s been said that satire sometimes reaffirms power, while poetry affirms only its own power. You have a podcast where you express a worry that Tina Fey, by mimicking and satirizing Sarah Palin, actually made her more acceptable and more likeable in doing so. So fast-forward to the current moment: we have Saturday Night Live.

[laughter]

COWEN: Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Is that useful satire? Is it not sufficiently negative? Should we be deploying poetry or is that the effective medium for social commentary?

GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .

[laughter]

GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.

With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”

[laughter] 

GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.

GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .

[laughter]

GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump. There are many directions you can go with Trump, the extraordinary insecurity of the man. Like I said, there are many things you could pluck out, but that for one, the idea of doing an impersonation where you really thought deeply about what it would mean in a comic way to represent this man’s almost tragic level of insecurity. Alec Baldwin is not . . . he’s a little too glib . . .

That’s the problem with Saturday Night Live, the larger problem — I was trying to get at it in that podcast episode on satire — the problem with doing satire through the vehicle of a show like Saturday Night Live is, they’re not incentivized to do that kind of deep thinking. The Melissa McCarthy thing is an exception; it’s not the rule.

Really what they’re incentivized to do is, for the actor — who is in many cases as famous or more famous than the person they are impersonating — the actor is using the character to further their own ends. Tina Fey is infinitely more popular, more accomplished, more whatever than Sarah Palin will ever be. And so she’s using Sarah Palin to further her own ends. That’s backwards. She’s not inhabiting the character of Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Sarah Palin, she is inhabiting Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Tina Fey.

I feel, so long as satire is done by a television show which has such a lofty position in the cultural hierarchy, it’s always going to be the case that that’s what’s going to drive their impersonations. They’re always going to be sitting on their hands. Remember they’re making fun of Trump six months after they had him on the show, right? After they were complicit in his rise, and after Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on camera. Maybe that’s fine. My point is you can’t be an effective satirist if you are so deeply complicit in the object of your satire.•

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As I write this post, smart money would be on the American Health Care Act failing to win the necessary votes, oddly because it’s too draconian for some Republican lawmakers and not enough for others, with Trump and Congress then settling for doing all in their power to undermine Obamacare into collapse.

The latter has already begun in earnest with tweaks made to weaken the ACA and the pulling of advertising campaigns aimed at increasing enrollment. The GOP’s gambit is that citizens will blame the previous Administration as the healthcare law implodes, but it could ultimately be pinned on the actual culprits, costing them control of one or more branches of the government. The only sure thing is that citizens will be hurt.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything, John McDonough, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, answered questions about the AHCA, which even Trump doesn’t want to attach his for-sale surname to. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

If you had carte blanche to write health care policy for the US, what would be the key points?

John McDonough:

Honestly, even though I think it won’t happen anytime soon, a single payer type system with protections and guarantees makes the most sense. Shorter term — it’s nuts that we have 3 gigantic federal health programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and ACA. Makes sense to me to move toward a consolidated federal health system/approach.


Question:

If you were a benevolent dictator, what would you do to control health care costs?

John McDonough:

Here are some options: 1. A single payer is an effective way to control costs because the government sets a strict limit. It can also lead to significant limitations in funding the system adequately. EG: Canada has a great system, but it has been suffering considerably over recent years because of strict funding limits put in place back in the 1970s, and it is falling behind. 2. Government price regulation is another approach that is less strict than single payer, and also marginally less effective — though it provides space for more give and take between the system providers and the payers. 3. Leave it to the market — that’s been the main approach since the Reagan era in the 1980s (interrupted by Obama in the past 8 years) and it has led to the largest explosion of costs ever.

So I pick #2, though not bursting with enthusiasm.


Question:

Why is the U.S. so against a single payer system when it works in so many other developed nations?

John McDonough:

Lots of reasons. A few: 1. so much of what we pay for healthcare right now is hidden — in employer contributions, in tax deductions, in government payments, so very few see the real cost. When people see the real cost in a single payer plan, many get scared and freak out. 2. Conservatives really fear giving that much power to the federal government — it runs heavily against the deep seeded grain of libertarianism in our culture. 3. Path dependence — if we were starting from scratch (say when Harry Truman tried it in 1948), it was easier. Now there is so much that gets replaced and it gets so — as DT says — “complicated.” 4. Large wealthy interests will spend lots of $ to confuse people.


Question:

Do you think that Obamacare and the ACA were a good or bad foot forward to having more affordable Healthcare, and if so, why?

John McDonough:

I believe that the ACA, overall, was a strong net positive for the US, recognizing that many elements could be improved/strengthened.

  • More than 20 million formerly uninsured got coverage

  • Medicaid got improved enormously in helping people get on and stay on

  • Medicare costs, on a per enrollee basis, since the ACA and because of it, have risen since 2009 as the lowest rate of increase since the program was created in 1965

  • The US medical system, significantly because of the ACA, is embracing a new improvement agenda to fix costs, quality, and efficiency — and the health system is embracing that changeLots more — those are the biggies.


Question:

It appears right now that the AHCA is “DOA” in the Senate, in Ted Cruz’s words. What are the GOP’s next steps? A new, different, more conservative bill? One that uproots the structures created by the ACA? Accept the ACA and just fix some of the deficiencies? Throw in the towel?

John McDonough:

Here is my fear, not hypothetical, and repeatedly mentioned by Trump.

ACA needs work and repair — totally doable and 100% necessary. Can be done, but Rs don’t want it fixed, they want it dead.

So Rs refuse to do any repairs, and let it devolve into chaos and just say the law is fatally flawed and it’s the D’s fault.

Could happen, and hard to game out the result. That seems to me to be the most likely piece.

Remember, this is about tax policy as much as about health policy. The key reason Rs are so fixed on getting this done is the tax cuts/repeals which play a big part in the tax reform agenda they want to do right after this.•

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Most who identify as religious in America voted for Donald Trump in the last election, with only Hispanic Catholics, Jewish people and the vaguely categorized “Other Faiths” favoring Hillary Clinton. But not all among the devout behave similarly: Some keep the Sabbath and others don’t.

In an Atlantic article, Peter Beinart theorizes that falling church attendance in America, a trend of the last several decades (even among believers), has helped reconfigure the culture war, which used to be mainly about so-called values issues and now is drawn along racial and ethnic lines. There are many other factors involved, so it’s not easy to establish causality, but there seems to be some validity to the argument, especially if considering the primary season, when Trump’s most reliable voters where evangelicals who skip Sundays.

This shift has probably been both boon and bane. Support has softened for some prejudiced church beliefs that run afoul of civil rights (as with gay marriage), but those advances have coincided with a surprising number of citizens choosing to ignore the communal good with respect to non-white Americans and immigrants. It does seem like an awful lot of self-described Christians have ceased asking themselves “What would Jesus do?” on a regular basis. 

Perhaps Beinart’s thesis might partly explain why so many among us were willing to make a deal with the devil?

The opening:

Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.

Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”

That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.•

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Trump poses many existential threats but let’s focus on two in particular that are linked: His autocratic impulses are a threat to liberal governance and America’s ethos of an immigrant nation, and his cultivation of a culture of complaint is a bankrupt brand of populism, a nauseating nostalgia for yesterday which places us in risk today and tomorrow.

The upshot is a federal government contemptible of the Constitution, one that’s willfully trying to block the steady flow of genius into the country and one that’s more enthusiastic for steel and coal than semiconductors. The Trump promise to America is that we can live like the 1950s and win the 21st century, that we don’t have to compete with the whole world because we can build a wall to keep out the future. He’s a new manner of aspiring autocrat concerned not with ideology by with its destruction. In Holly Case’s Aeon essay about contemporary strongmen who are divorced from governing principles beyond promising to make difficult challenges vanish, she concluded this way:

The new authoritarian does not pretend to make you better, only to make you feel better about not wanting to change. In this respect, he has tapped a gusher in the Zeitgeist that reaches well beyond the domain of state socialism, an attitude that the writer Marilynne Robinson disparages as ‘nonfailure’, and that the writer Walter Mosley elevates to a virtue: ‘We need to raise our imperfections to a political platform that says: “My flaws need attention too.” This is what I call the “untopia”.’ Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

In 2017, China is a notable exception to this definition, an autocracy aiming to win the race in supercomputers, semiconductors and solar, which is particularly perilous when paired with America’s retreat. We picked an awful time to stop looking forward, and the ramifications will be felt long after Trump is gone.

From Michael Schuman in Bloomberg View:

China is marshaling massive resources to march into high-tech industries, from robotics to medical devices. In the case of semiconductors alone, the state has amassed $150 billion to build a homegrown industry. In a report in March, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China pressed the point that the Chinese government is employing a wide range of tools to pursue these ambitions, from lavishing subsidies on favored sectors to squeezing technology out of foreign firms.

The only way for the U.S. to compete with those efforts is to “run faster.” Yet Trump’s ideas to boost competitiveness mainly amount to cutting taxes and regulation. Although reduced taxes might leave companies with more money to spend on research and development, that’s not enough. The U.S. needs to do much more to help businesses achieve bigger and better breakthroughs.

Trump is doing the opposite. One reason U.S. companies are so innovative is that they attract talented workers from everywhere else. But Trump’s recent suspension of fast-track H-1B visas could curtail this infusion of scientists and researchers. If his intention is to ensure jobs go to Americans first, he need not bother. The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher — the skilled workers that H-1B holders would compete with — is a mere 2.5 percent. 

This policy isn’t just a threat to Silicon Valley, but across industries. Michael McGarry, the chief executive officer of PPG Industries Inc., worries about the effect visa restrictions would have on his paint-making business. “We create a lot of innovation because of the diversity that we have,” he recently told CNBC. “We think people with PhDs that are educated here should stay here and work for us and not work for the competition.”

China will likely try to capitalize on this mistake. Robin Li, CEO of the internet giant Baidu Inc., recently advocated that China ease its visa requirements to attract talented workers to help develop new technologies for Chinese industry, just the opposite of Trump’s approach.

Trump’s budget proposals are similarly a setback. He wants to boost defense spending by slashing funding for just about everything else, notably education. By one estimate, some $20 billion would have to get cut from the departments of education, labor, and health and human services to accommodate his plan. If Trump wants to contend with Chinese power, he’d be better off reversing those priorities — to create more graduates and fewer guns. He could offer proposals to make higher education more affordable for the poor, for instance, or to bolster vocational training. So far, there’s little evidence he’s making such spending a priority.

China, by contrast, is expanding access to education on a huge scale.

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Fidel Castro attempted to hide his extravagances, but he was an outlier among recent dictators, most of whom have taken pains to cultivate conspicuous displays of wealth, which they believe projects unassailable power. It’s a sort of autocratic architecture, a weaponized interior design. Big, shiny hotel-esque hideousness was the preference of Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, all of whom seemed to have uniformly possessed a child’s comprehension of what affluence should look like: a Vegas casino in which the house always wins.

The new millennia has continued with much of the same, though more zeros have been added at the end of the number with the rampant kleptocracies in Russia and Dubai, among other tyrannical regions of the globe. With the election of Trump, a tin-pot dictator painted gold, the White House now has a figure given to ridiculous gaudiness, and his use of the Oval Office as a cash register for himself and his family is an unsurprising extension of this greed motif. It’s the prosperity gospel of a President who doesn’t like to read.

From “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” Peter York’s excellent Politico article:

Then, in late 2015, I came across a set of pictures with no identifying text. They appeared to show a gigantic apartment in what looked, from the windows, very much like New York. But I know Manhattan and its sophisticated style pretty well, and at first glance, you would think the place didn’t belong to an American but to a Russian oligarch, or possibly a Saudi prince with a second home in the United States. There were overscaled rooms, and obviously incorrect-looking historical detailing and proportions. The home had lots of gilded French furniture and the strange impersonal look of a hotel lobby, with chairs and sofas placed uncomfortably far from one another. There were masses of gold; there were the usual huge chandeliers, branded relics of famous sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, and mushroom-colored marble floors. There was relatively little in the way of paintings, but otherwise, the place reeked of dictator chic.

As it turned out, this familiar yet unfamiliar apartment—a familiar style to me by then, but in an unlikely location—belonged to Donald Trump, who by then was running for president. This was the penthouse of the potential leader of the free world. The design work, I have since learned, was started by the late Angelo Donghia, a decorator better known for a chic Manhattan look. But the substantive current design had been done by one Henry Conversano, who designed extensively—and perhaps unsurprisingly—for casinos. No matter how you looked at it, the main thing this apartment said was, “I am tremendously rich and unthinkably powerful.” This was the visual language of public, not private, space. It was the language of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern nouveau riche.

Why does all of this matter? Domestic interiors reveal how people want to be seen. But they also reveal something about the owners’ inner lives, their cultural reference points and how they relate to other people. With its marble-inlaid dining table, painted ceilings and gold flourishes quite literally everywhere, Trump’s aesthetic puts him more in the visual tradition of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, who erected a massive rotating golden statue of himself in Ashgabat, than the self-effacing gray-suited conventions of Western democratic leaders. Atop Trump Tower, Trump’s apartment projects a kind of power that bypasses all the boring checks and balances of collaboration and mutual responsibility and first-among-equals. It is about a single dominant personality.

This, of course, is a startlingly un-American idea.

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It would be great if all of us could grow smarter, but smart isn’t everything. Being wise and ethical are important, too.

PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have had access to elite educations, started successful businesses and amassed vast fortunes, but in this time of Trump they don’t seem particularly enlightened. Thiel ardently supported the bigoted, unqualified sociopath to the White House, while Musk’s situational ethics in dealing with the new abnormal are particularly amoral.

At SXSW, Ray Kurzweil said he believes technology has already made us much smarter and will improve us exponentially in that manner by 2029 when the Singularity arrives. While his views of the future are too aggressive, Kurzweil’s view of today seems oddly rose-colored. Why if we’re so much brighter do we have unintelligent reality TV host in the White House? Why is there ever-deepening wealth inequality? Why are we ravaged by an opioid epidemic? 

If we’re smarter now–a big if–and it’s divorced from basic morality and decency, are we any better off?

From Dyani Sabin’s Inverse piece about Kurzweil’s appearance in Austin:

The future isn’t going to look like a science fiction story with a few super intelligent A.I.s that attack us.

“That’s not realistic. We don’t have one or two A.I.s in the world. Today we have billions,” he says. And unlike Musk who imagines the rise of the A.I. as something that threatens human existence, Kurzweil says that doesn’t hold with how we interact with A.I.s today.

“What’s actually happening is they are powering all of us. They’re making us smarter. They may not yet be inside our bodies but by the 2030s we will connect our neocortex, the part of our brain where we do our thinking, to the cloud.”

This isn’t just a pipe dream to Kurzweil, who’s had reasonable luck predicting where the future is going to go. “There are people with computers in their brains today — Parkinson’s patients,” he points out. “That’s how these things start.” Following the path of steps from the technology we have now, to what will happen twenty years from now, Kurzweil says, “in the 2030’s there will be something you can take that will go inside your brain and help your memory.” And that’s just the beginning.

Uploading our brains into the cloud will allow humanity to waste less time on lower-level types of mental tasks, Kurzweil says. He’s very interested in the idea of uploading the neocortex because it’s responsible for things like art, music, and humor. By allowing our brains to connect more on that level, by melding with artificial intelligence, we will expand our ability to do these things and be better people. “Ultimately it will affect everything,” he says. “We’re going to be able to meet the physical needs of all humans. We’re going to expand our minds and exemplify these artistic qualities that we value.”•

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  • Don’t blame Tim Berners-Lee, not for cat memes, spam or even the way his gift connected and emboldened the absolute worst among us. A hammer is a weapon or a tool depending on how you swing it, and like almost any invention, the World Wide Web is as good as people utilizing it. A lot of us aren’t very good right now.
  • Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village even as he was heralding its arrival 50 years ago. He believed all this closeness, these worlds colliding, could explode. He encouraged us to study the new arrangement–“why not devote your powers to discerning patterns?”–lest we’d be overrun by them. Plenty among us know the issues at hand, but they’re not easy to address.
  • There’s no doubt the Internet does a lot of good and some of its worst excesses can be curbed, but the trouble with this tool isn’t that we’re not yet familiar enough with decentralized media and soon enough we’ll have a handle on the situation. The problems seem inherent to the medium, which is a large-scale experiment in anarchy, and just as sure as we correct some of bugs, others will take flight.
  • During the Arab Spring there was much debate over whether the Internet aas actually useful in toppling states. I think it is, regardless of whether the nation or usurpers happen to be good or bad.

In a Guardian essay, Berners-Lee offers biting criticism of his pet project, suggesting fixes. I wonder though, as with Facebook promising to address its shortcomings, if the system isn’t built for mayhem. That may be especially true since most citizens don’t seem very bothered by handing over their personal information in exchange for sating some psychological needs, offering their own Manhattan for some shiny beads.

An excerpt:

1) We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, such as sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.•

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If Moby-Dick were the only Herman Melville book I’d ever read, I would have assumed that he was a mediocre writer with great ideas. Having gone through all of his shorter works, however, I know he could be a precise and cogent talent. He seemed to have reached for everything with his most famous novel–aiming to fashion a sort of Shakespearean Old Testament story of good and evil–and buckled under the weight of his ambitions.

The far better Moby-Dick is Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, a horse opera of Biblical proportions, a medicine show peddling poison, which takes an unsparing look at our black hearts and leaves the reader with a purple bruise. Twenty-five years on, it remains as profound and disturbing as any American novel.

The British writer David Vann reveals he’s similarly admiring of this McCarthy work in a “Twenty Questions” interview in the Times Literary Supplement. He’s also despairing of what he believes is the bleak future of literature. I believe as long as humans are largely human, we’ll always enamored by narratives. My fear is mainly that sometimes we choose the wrong ones.

An excerpt:

Question:

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

David Vann:

There are hundreds, but the foremost from this time is Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian, which I think is the greatest novel ever written in English.  He’s not a dramatist, and I write Greek tragedy, so I never could have imagined skipping the dramatic plane and going straight to vision.  I do write in the same American landscape tradition, extending literal landscapes into figurative ones, but I’ll never do it as powerfully as he does.

Question:

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

David Vann:

Less money for sure. We’ve already lost so much to piracy and shrinking readerships and economic downturns. Publishers will be less brave, editors will edit less, more books will be published online for nothing, we’ll continue to lose experts and have to put up with even more reviews from unqualified idiots, and as entire generations learn to read without subtext about what someone had for lunch, we can expect literature to look more like an account of what someone had for lunch. There is absolutely no way in which the technology or literary theory of the past decades will enrich literature.  We should be honest about what is crap. …

Question:

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

David Vann:

I should never answer this kind of question, because I’m only shooting myself in the foot, but when Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time as the Great American Novelist, who could not have thought of McCarthy, Proulx, Robinson, Morrison, Oates, Roth, DeLillo and at least a hundred others far better than Franzen?  And to call The Corrections the best book in ten years?  Really?•

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Much has been made of the Trump campaign overwhelmingly winning America’s rural counties ravaged by opioid abuse, the narrative being that economic hardship begat drug addiction which in turn led lost souls into the arms of an American Mussolini.

Inconvenient truths intrude, however. 

Not all of these small towns are doing badly economically, and some are thriving, having rebounded remarkably since the Great Recession. Nor did the drug abuse begin with a wayward scrip meant to soothe back pain. 

One illuminating example can be found in Jack Healy’s New York Times article about the Winemiller farming family in Ohio’s Clermont County, which boasts a low 4.1% unemployment rate, who have already lost two of three adult children to heroin overdoses, with the third one battling to beat the same poison. The younger members of the clan began using alcohol and narcotics when they were teens, years before an Obama Presidency or the sharp financial downturn of 2008, eventually graduating to the drug that would undo their home.

The paterfamilias, who has suffered greatly, voted Republican in the recent Presidential election. “My view on Donald Trump, he’s what this country needed years ago: someone that’s hard-core,” he tells the Times. The woebegone man wants someone to arrest reality, to force sense on a chaotic situation, to slap handcuffs on these strange demons.

But the problem starts with our own demons, and we’re not going to be able to bluster and batter them out of existence. We have to go deeper inside and further back to get to the root of the problem. To figure things out, we need to look in the mirror rather than to a monster.

An excerpt:

The Winemillers live on the eastern edge of Clermont County, about an hour east of Cincinnati, where a suburban quilt of bedroom towns, office parks and small industry thins into woods and farmland, mostly for corn and soybeans. Apple orchards and pumpkin farms — now closed for the season — are tucked among clusters of small churches, small businesses and even smaller ranch-style brick houses. Every so often, the roads wind past the gates of a big new mansion or high-end subdivision being built in the woods.

Jobs have returned to the area since the recession, and manufacturing businesses are popping up along the freeway that circles Cincinnati. The county’s unemployment rate is only 4.1 percent, and every morning, the city-bound lanes of skinny country roads are packed with people heading to work.

But the economic resilience has done little to insulate the area from a cascade of cheap heroin and synthetic opiates like fentanyl and carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, which have sent overdose rates soaring across much of the country, but especially in rural areas like this one.

Drug overdoses here have nearly tripled since 1999, and the state as a whole has been ravaged. In Ohio, 2,106 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014, more than in any other state, according to an analysis of the most recent federal data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In rural Wayne Township, where the Winemillers and about 4,900 other people live, the local fire department answered 18 overdose calls last year. Firefighters answered three in one week this winter, and said the spikes and lulls in their overdose calls gave them a feel for when particularly noxious batches of drugs were brought out to the countryside from Cincinnati or Dayton.

They get overdose calls for people living inside the Edenton Rural School, a shuttered brick schoolhouse where officers have cleared away signs of meth production and found the flotsam of drug use on the floors.

“I don’t think we’re winning the battle,” said David Moulden, the fire chief. “It gives you a hopelessness.”•

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Thomas E. Ricks of Foreign Policy asked one of the most horrifying questions about America you can pose: Will we have another civil war in the next ten to fifteen years? Keith Mines of the United States Institute of Peace and a career foreign service officer provided a sobering reply, estimating the chance for large-scale internecine violence at 60%. 

Things can change unexpectedly, sometimes for the better, but it sure does feel like we’re headed down a road to ruin, with the anti-democratic, incompetent Trump and company provoking us to a tipping point. The Simon Cowell-ish strongman may seem a fluke because of his sizable loss in the popular vote, but in many ways his political ascent is the culmination of the past four decades of dubious U.S. cultural, civic, economic, technological and political decisions. We’re not here by accident. 

· · ·

One of the criteria on which Mines bases his diagnosis: “Press and information flow is more and more deliberately divisive, and its increasingly easy to put out bad info and incitement.” That triggered in me a memory of a 2012 internal Facebook study, which, unsurprisingly, found that Facebook was an enemy of the echo chamber rather than one of its chief enablers. I’m not saying the scholars involved were purposely deceitful, but I don’t think even Mark Zuckerberg would stand by those results five years later. We’re worlds apart in America, and social media, and the widespread decentralization of all media, has hastened and heightened those divisions.

· · ·

An excerpt from Farhad Manjoo’s 2012 Slate piece “The End of the Echo Chamber,” about the supposed salubrious effects of social networks, is followed by Mines’ opening.


From Manjoo:

Today, Facebook is publishing a study that disproves some hoary conventional wisdom about the Web. According to this new research, the online echo chamber doesn’t exist.
 
This is of particular interest to me. In 2008, I wrote True Enough, a book that argued that digital technology is splitting society into discrete, ideologically like-minded tribes that read, watch, or listen only to news that confirms their own beliefs. I’m not the only one who’s worried about this. Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, argued in his recent book The Filter Bubble that Web personalization algorithms like Facebook’s News Feed force us to consume a dangerously narrow range of news. The echo chamber was also central to Cass Sunstein’s thesis, in his book Republic.com, that the Web may be incompatible with democracy itself. If we’re all just echoing our friends’ ideas about the world, is society doomed to become ever more polarized and solipsistic?

It turns out we’re not doomed. The new Facebook study is one of the largest and most rigorous investigations into how people receive and react to news. It was led by Eytan Bakshy, who began the work in 2010 when he was finishing his Ph.D. in information studies at the University of Michigan. He is now a researcher on Facebook’s data team, which conducts academic-type studies into how users behave on the teeming network.

Bakshy’s study involves a simple experiment. Normally, when one of your friends shares a link on Facebook, the site uses an algorithm known as EdgeRank to determine whether or not the link is displayed in your feed. In Bakshy’s experiment, conducted over seven weeks in the late summer of 2010, a small fraction of such shared links were randomly censored—that is, if a friend shared a link that EdgeRank determined you should see, it was sometimes not displayed in your feed. Randomly blocking links allowed Bakshy to create two different populations on Facebook. In one group, someone would see a link posted by a friend and decide to either share or ignore it. People in the second group would not receive the link—but if they’d seen it somewhere else beyond Facebook, these people might decide to share that same link of their own accord.

By comparing the two groups, Bakshy could answer some important questions about how we navigate news online. Are people more likely to share information because their friends pass it along? And if we are more likely to share stories we see others post, what kinds of friends get us to reshare more often—close friends, or people we don’t interact with very often? Finally, the experiment allowed Bakshy to see how “novel information”—that is, information that you wouldn’t have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook—travels through the network. This is important to our understanding of echo chambers. If an algorithm like EdgeRank favors information that you’d have seen anyway, it would make Facebook an echo chamber of your own beliefs. But if EdgeRank pushes novel information through the network, Facebook becomes a beneficial source of news rather than just a reflection of your own small world.

That’s exactly what Bakshy found. His paper is heavy on math and network theory, but here’s a short summary of his results. First, he found that the closer you are with a friend on Facebook—the more times you comment on one another’s posts, the more times you appear in photos together, etc.—the greater your likelihood of sharing that person’s links. At first blush, that sounds like a confirmation of the echo chamber: We’re more likely to echo our closest friends.

But here’s Bakshy’s most crucial finding: Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook.•


From Mines:

What a great but disturbing question (the fact that you can even ask it). Weird question for me as for most of my career I have been traveling the world observing other countries in various states of dysfunction and answering this same question. In this case if the standard is largescale violence that requires the National Guard to deal with in the timeline you lay out, I would say about 60 percent.

I base that on the following factors:

— Entrenched national polarization of our citizenry with no obvious meeting place. (Not true locally, however, which could be our salvation; but the national issues are pretty fierce and will only get worse).

— Press and information flow is more and more deliberately divisive, and its increasingly easy to put out bad info and incitement.

— Violence is “in” as a method to solve disputes and get one’s way. The president modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign.  Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this, although it has been going on for several years with them as well — consider the university events where professors or speakers are shouted down and harassed, the physically aggressive anti-Israeli events, and the anarchists during globalization events. It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.

— Weak institutions — press and judiciary, that are being further weakened. (Still fairly strong and many of my colleagues believe they will survive, but you can do a lot of damage in four years, and your timeline gives them even more time).

— Total sellout of the Republican leadership, validating and in some cases supporting all of the above.•

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What should we do if the President is a demagogue, a fascist, and a vicious bigot who surrounds himself with more of the same? What if he tramples on the Constitution, slanders other public figures and makes up bullshit incessantly? What about if it’s becoming increasingly clear that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to corrupt our election process? What if he’s using his office to greatly enrich himself and his family? What if he’s trying to delegitimize the free press and the judiciary branch so that he won’t have any checks on his worst impulses? What if he’s already committed several impeachable acts and nothing has happened?

What then?

In a Medium essay, Bernie Sanders asks “What Should We Do If the President Is a Liar?” The piece was written in response to ridiculous charges made by Amber Phillips of the Washington Post, who derided the Vermont Senator for “lowering the state of our political discourse” by pointing out that the President frequently lies, which he does.

This kind of knuckle-rapping is exactly what a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini depends on–it’s what all fascists rely upon. They behave as disgracefully as possible, accepting no basic rules or laws, while decent people are pinioned by polite norms, too afraid to say what’s blindingly apparent. Her comparison of Sanders’ rebuke to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “you lie!” during an Obama State of the Union address is foolishly disingenuous and false moral equivalency of the highest order for many reasons, the biggest one being Obama wasn’t a serial liar and conspiracy-theory peddler while Trump is. Phillips’ description of Trump’s assertion of widespread voter fraud, which is a complete lie, as an “eyebrow-raising claim,” is one way to put it, just not the honest way.

· · ·

You know what would be good? If the Twitter brain trust announced they were revoking Trump’s account because he slandered President Obama with serious, baseless claims of wiretapping. They could point out that no one has an absolute right to tweet, that it’s a privilege. It’s a very, very easy privilege to earn, but there have to be some rules. If Trump can produce proof his tweets weren’t slanders, he can have his account reactivated. Until then, farewell.

· · ·

In “How Trump Became an Accidental Totalitarian,” Nick Bilton’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer theorizes the new President’s outrageous and unhinged behavior isn’t the product of a Machiavellian mastermind but the acts of an unintelligent person who “doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing in the White House.” The opening:

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about Donald Trump and his infamous Twitter meltdowns—trying to deduce exactly what he’s up to regarding his constant, and seemingly never-ending, attacks on the press. The more that Trump has pushed the narrative that all unfavorable reportage of his regime is “fake news,” the more I’ve noticed a leitmotif. Trump, it seems, is using Twitter the way despotic politicians have manipulated the media throughout the past century when they needed a comfortable vessel for their lies.

Just travel back to Weimar Germany, where during his ascent to power in 1920, Adolf Hitler purchased outright a newspaper called The Volkischer Beobachter, which would grow its circulation to more than 1 million readers in the 40s as it became the organ of the National Socialist regime. The Beobachter, as it was often called, facilitated the Nazis’ revolting propaganda and culture of genocidal hatred. It allowed Hitler and Goebbels the opportunity to publish countless fake news stories about adversarial countries, about Jews, and, indeed, the press.

In some ways, Hitler set an early precedent for how to propagate fake news (or call real news “fake”) at the dawn of the information age. Kim Jong Il would control state media to his advantage much the same way. Saddam Hussein and his sons “owned” a dozen newspapers in Iraq, controlling virtually everything that was printed, and what was not. Vladimir Putinmanipulates the press in Russia. (He also allegedly has journalists killed.)

Freedom of the press is a sacrosanct right of Western democracies. But Trump, who has upended so much of what we believe in, has proved that the First Amendment is no longer enough to keep honest reporting unmolested. Indeed, were Hitler or Saddam to operate in our modern times, God forbid, they wouldn’t need to go through the hassle of running a state organ or Beobachter news outlet. They could simply open up their smartphones, sign up for a Twitter account, and start tweeting lies 140 characters at a time, both pushing their own agenda and decrying as false anything that they disagreed with.•

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I’ve read the full canon of the deeply humane short story writer and journalist George Saunders to this point, and I’m three books (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, My Struggle: Book Five and Difficult Women) from digging into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Even at his most outlandish, Saunders never seems to be writing about the future but instead providing social critiques about contemporary life. What is the quiet nightmare The Semplica Girls Diaries about if not the growing divide between the haves and have-nots as we shift from the Industrial Age to the Digital one, the way technocracy removes the friction from our lives and disappears the “downsized” from our minds?

In that same vein, the New York Times T Magazine published, in 2014, new notations the writer made about his 1996 collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. An excerpt: 

Closing thought: I like the audacity of this book. I like less the places where it feels like I went into Auto-Quirky Mode. Ah youth! Some issues: Life amid limitations; paucity. Various tonalities of defense. Pain; humiliation inflicted on hapless workers – some of us turn on one another. Early on, this read, could really feel this young writer’s aversion to anything mild or typical or bland. Feeling, at first, like a tic. But then it started to grow on me — around “400 Pound CEO.” This performative thing then starts to feel essential; organic somehow – a way to get to the moral outrage. I kept thinking of the word “immoderation.” Like the yelp of someone who’s just been burned.

Sadly those sick feelings have fully metastasized in the intervening 20 years, and now CivilWarLand isn’t the only thing in bad decline. 

In a Guardian essay, Saunders does a brilliant job explaining the process of creative writers, though I think he actually explains creativity more broadly. It’s largely about noticing small details and extemporaneously making connections between them.

An excerpt:

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”•

Developing visual recognition in machines is helpful in performing visual tasks, of course, but this ability has the potential to unfold Artificial Intelligence in much broader and significant ways, providing AI with a context from which to more accurately “comprehend” the world. (I’m not even sure if the quotation marks in the previous sentence are necessary.)

In an interview conducted by Tom Simonite of Technology Review, Director of AI Research at Facebook’s AI research director Yann LeCun explains that exposing machines to video will hopefully enable them to learn through observation as small children do. “That’s what would allow them to acquire common sense, in the end,” he says.

An excerpt:

Question:

Babies learn a lot about the world without explicit instruction, though.

Yann LeCun:

One of the things we really want to do is get machines to acquire the very large number of facts that represent the constraints of the real world just by observing it through video or other channels. That’s what would allow them to acquire common sense, in the end. These are things that animals and babies learn in the first few months of life—you learn a ridiculously large amount about the world just by observation. There are a lot of ways that machines are currently fooled easily because they have very narrow knowledge of the world.

Question:

What progress is being made on getting software to learn by observation?

Yann LeCun:

We are very interested in the idea that a learning system should be able to predict the future. You show it a few frames of video and it tries to predict what’s going to happen next. If we can train a system to do this we think we’ll have developed techniques at the root of an unsupervised learning system. That is where, in my opinion, a lot of interesting things are likely to happen. The applications for this are not necessarily in vision—it’s a big part of our effort in making progress in AI.•

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When it comes to technology, promises often sound like threats. 

In a very smart Edge piece, Chris Anderson, the former Wired EIC who’s now CEO of 3DRobotics, holds forth on closed-loop systems, which allow for processes to be monitored, measured and corrected–even self-corrected. As every object becomes “smart,” they can collect information about themselves, their users and their surroundings. In many ways, these feedback loops will be a boon, allowing (potentially) for smoother maintenance, a better use of resources and a cleaner environment. But the new arrangement won’t all be good.

The question Anderson posed which I used as the headline makes it sound like we’ll be able to control where such technology snakes, but I don’t think that’s true. It won’t get out of hand in a sci-fi thriller sense but in very quiet, almost imperceptible ways. There will hardly be a hum. 

At any rate, Anderson’s story of how he built a drone company from scratch, first with the help of his children and then a 19-year-old kid with no college background from Tijuana, is amazing and a great lesson in globalized economics.

From Edge:

If we could measure the world, how would we manage it differently? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the digital realm since the birth of the Internet. Our digital lives—clicks, histories, and cookies—can now be measured beautifully. The feedback loop is complete; it’s called closing the loop. As you know, we can only manage what we can measure. We’re now measuring on-screen activity beautifully, but most of the world is not on screens.                                 

As we get better and better at measuring the world—wearables, Internet of Things, cars, satellites, drones, sensors—we are going to be able to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment. We’re going to start to find out what the consequences of our actions are and, presumably, we’ll take smarter actions as a result. This journey with the Internet that we started more than twenty years ago is now extending to the physical world. Every industry is going to have to ask the same questions: What do we want to measure? What do we do with that data? How can we manage things differently once we have that data? This notion of closing the loop everywhere is perhaps the biggest endeavor of our age.                                 

Closing the loop is a phrase used in robotics. Open-loop systems are when you take an action and you can’t measure the results—there’s no feedback. Closed-loop systems are when you take an action, you measure the results, and you change your action accordingly. Systems with closed loops have feedback loops; they self-adjust and quickly stabilize in optimal conditions. Systems with open loops overshoot; they miss it entirely. …

I use the phrase closing the loop because that’s the phrase we use in robotics. Other people might use the phrase big data. Before they called it big data, they called it data mining. Remember that? That was nuts. Anyway, we’re going to come up with a new word for it.                                 

It goes both ways: The tendrils of the Internet reach out through sensors, and then these sensors feed back to the Internet. The sensors get smarter because they’re connected to the Internet, and the Internet gets smarter because it’s connected to the sensors. This feedback loop extends beyond the industry that’s feeding back to the meta-industry, which is the Internet and the planet.•

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In the latest round of what may be gamesmanship between the American Intelligence Community and Russia, Wikileaks released information about purported CIA spying techniques, which included, among other tricks of the trade, a way to remotely hack smart televisions so that the watchers would become the watched. Such methods should surprise no one.

What does startle me is how receptive Americans are to being watched, as if in this decentralized media age, we’ve accepted, finally and completely, that all the world actually is a stage. It goes far beyond the way we revel in the modern freak show of Reality TV or allow social networks access to our private lives in return for a cheap platform on which to peddle our personalities. As sensors and microchips proliferate, we’re gradually turning every object into a computer from which we can be monitored and quantified. Big Brother will eventually have several siblings in every room. The shock is that we’re so willing to be members of this non-traditional family.

Chance the Gardner was all of us when he said, “I like to watch.” Apparently, we also like to be watched.

The opening of Sapna Maheshwari’s smart New York Times piece on the topic:

While Ellen Milz and her family were watching the Olympics last summer, their TV was watching them.

Ms. Milz, 48, who lives with her husband and three children in Chicago, had agreed to be a panelist for a company called TVision Insights, which monitored her viewing habits — and whether her eyes flicked down to her phone during the commercials, whether she was smiling or frowning — through a device on top of her TV.

“The marketing company said, ‘We’re going to ask you to put this device in your home, connect it to your TV and they’re going to watch you for the Olympics to see how you like it, what sports, your expression, who’s around,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Whatever, I have nothing to hide.’”

Ms. Milz acknowledged that she had initially found the idea odd, but that those qualms had quickly faded.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” she said, comparing it to the Nest security cameras in her home. She said she had initially received $60 for participating and an additional $230 after four to six months.

TVision — which has worked with the Weather Channel, NBC and the Disney ABC Television Group — is one of several companies that have entered living rooms in recent years, emerging with new, granular ways for marketers to understand how people are watching television and, in particular, commercials. The appeal of this information has soared as Americans rapidly change their viewing habits, streaming an increasing number of shows weeks or months after they first air, on devices as varied as smartphones, laptops and Roku boxes, not to mention TVs.

Through the installation of a Microsoft Kinect device, normally used for Xbox video games, on top of participants’ TVs, TVision tracks the movement of people’s eyes in relation to the television. The device’s sensors can record minute shifts for all the people in the room.•

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Masha Gessen has made it clear she doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for America electing an autocratic sociopath, and in the big picture she’s right.

I don’t doubt Kremlin interference one bit, nor that it was likely committed in concert with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign if not the President himself, but there’s no real excuse for nearly 63 million citizens voting for a candidate who was clearly a habitual liar, vicious demagogue and utter incompetent. That’s on us.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aggressively strive for the truth in this gravely serious matter, and that arrests shouldn’t be made and impeachment be pursued if illegal activities can be proven. Certainly Congress would be investigating the matter at full throttle if a Democratic President had behaved in a similar manner, but partisan hackery has become a hallmark of the legislative branch.

In a Gessen piece just published at the New York Review of Books, the reporter wonders why the Russian espionage is a more important lie to many in the media and the Intelligence Community than the avalanche of dishonesty Trump and his cabinet regularly send down the mountain. On this point, I’ll disagree with her.

She’s right that it would be foolish to focus on the Putin connection to the exclusion of the many other assaults on liberal governance we’re enduring nearly daily, but an American President conspiring with an adversarial foreign power to gain office–whether the machinations actually helped him win votes or not–would be a singular shock to the system. Destroying health care and lowering taxes on the highest earners would be awful policy, but it wouldn’t be treason. The suspicious activity proceeding the election may very well be.

From Gessen:

The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.

More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.

The unrelenting focus on Russia has yielded an unexpected positive result, however. Following Flynn’s resignation, Trump designated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a thoughtful and highly respected military strategist, as his national security adviser. And Fiona Hill, probably the most knowledgeable American scholar of Putin’s Russia, is expected to take charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council. Hill has been a consistent and perceptive critic of Putin, and a proponent of maintaining sanctions imposed by the United States following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both of these appointments—and the fact that sanctions remain in place six weeks into Trump’s fast-moving presidency—contradict the “Putin’s puppet” narrative (as does the fact that Russian domestic propaganda has already turned against Trump). But such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.

Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban. It would not get rid of Trump, but it might mitigate the damage he is causing. Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.•

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Margaret Atwood is in an odd position: As our politics get worse, her stature grows. Right now, sadly (for us), she’s never towered higher.

Appropriate that on International Women’s Day and the A Day Without a Woman protests, the The Handmaid’s Tale novelist conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything to coincide with the soon-to-premiere Hulu version of her most famous work. Dystopia, feminism and literature are, of course, among the discussion topics. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Thank you so much for writing The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book that got me hooked on dystopian novels. What was your inspiration for the story?

Margaret Atwood:

Ooo, three main things: 1) What some people said they would do re: women if they had the power (they have it now and they are); 2) 17th C Puritan New England, plus history through the ages — nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere and 3) the dystopian spec fics of my youth, such as 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc. I wanted to see if I could write one of those, too.


Question:

What would you be doing right now if you were an American? Would you run for office? Would you protest? Would you be planning to resist ICE?

Margaret Atwood:

I would make a very bad politician, so no, I wouldn’t run for office. But I would support those who were running. I would certainly turn out for protests, as I did here in Toronto, wearing a rather strange pink hat. I don’t know what else I would do! We are in a time when reality seems to shift every day…


Question:

What is a book you keep going back to read and why?

Margaret Atwood:

This is going to sound corny but Shakespeare is my return read. He knew so much about human nature (+ and minus) and also was an amazing experimenter with language. But there are many other favourites. Wuthering Heights recently. In moments of crisis I go back to (don’t laugh) Lord of the Rings, b/c despite the EVIL EYE OF MORDOR it comes out all right in the end. Whew.


Question:

How, if at all, has your feminism changed over the last decade or so? Can you see these changes taking place throughout your literature? Lastly, can you offer any advice for feminists of the millennial generation? What mistakes are we making/repeating? What are our priorities in this political climate?

Margaret Atwood:

Hello: I am so shrieking old that my formative years (the 40s and 50s) took place before 2nd wave late-60’s feminist/women’s movement. But since I grew up largely in the backwoods and had strong female relatives and parents who read a lot and never told me I couldn’t do such and such because of being a girl, I avoided the agit-prop of the 50s that said women should be in bungalows with washing machines to make room for men coming back from the war. So I was always just very puzzled by some of the stuff said and done by/around women. I was probably a danger to myself and others! (joke) My interest was in women of all kinds — and they are of all kinds. They are interesting in and of themselves, and they do not always behave well. But then I learned more about things like laws and other parts of the world, and history… try Marilyn French’s From Eve to Dawn, pretty massive. We are now in what is being called the 3rd wave — seeing a lot of pushback against women, and also a lot of women pushing back in their turn. I’d say in general: be informed, be aware. The priorities in the US are roughly trying to prevent the roll-back that is taking place especially in the area of women’s health. Who knew that this would ever have to be defended? Childbirth care, pre-natal care, early childhood care — many people will not even be able to afford any of it. Dead bodies on the floor will result. It is frightful. Then there is the whole issue of sexual violence being used as control — it is such an old motif. For a theory of why now, see Eve’s Seed. It’s an unsettled time. If I were a younger woman I’d be taking a self-defense course. I did once take Judo, in the days of the Boston Strangler, but it was very lady-like then and I don’t think it would have availed. There’s something called Wen-Do. It’s good, I am told.


Question:

The Handmaid’s Tale gets thrown out as your current worst-case scenario right now but I read The Heart Goes Last a few months ago and I was surprised how possible it felt. Was there a specific news story or event that compelled you to write that particular story?

Margaret Atwood:

The Heart Goes Last — yes, came from my interest in what happens when a region’s economy collapses and people are really up against it, and the only “business” in which people can have jobs is a prison. It pushes the envelope (will there really be some Elvis robots?) but again, much of what was only speculation then is increasingly possible.


Question:

How did your experience with the 2017 version differ from the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Margaret Atwood:

Different times (that world is closer now!) and a 90 minute film is a different proposition from a 10 part 1st season series, which can build out and deep dive because it has more time. The advent of high-quality streamed or televised series has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for longer novels. We launched the 1990 film in West and then East Berlin just as the Wall was coming down… and I started writing book when the Wall was still there… Framed it in people’s minds in a different way. Also, then, many people were saying “It can’t happen here.” Now, not so much….•

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Andrew Ng’s predictions about Artificial Intelligence carry more weight with me than the projections of many of his peers because he never seems driven by irrational exuberance. In fact, he often urges caution when talk about the imminent arrival of driverless cars and other landscape-changing tools becomes overheated. 

So, when Baidu’s Chief Scientist asserts AI will soon deliver to us a brave new world, one in which, for instance, speech recognition is all but perfected, it’s probably wise to take notice. Computer conversation that’s wholly convincing should give us pause, however. Any technology that becomes seamless should be met as much by concern as enthusiasm.

An excerpt from a smart Wall Street Journal interview Scott Austin conducted with Ng and Neil Jacobstein of Singularity University:

Andrew Ng:

In addition to strengthening our core business, AI is creating a lot of new opportunities. Just as about 100 years ago electrification changed every single major industry, I think we’re in the phase where AI will change pretty much every major industry.

So part of my work at Baidu is to systematically explore new verticals. We have built up an autonomous driving unit. We have a conversational computer, similar to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. And we’re systematically pursuing new industries where we think we can build an AI team to create and capture value.

Question:

Let’s talk about speech recognition. I believe someone in your program has said that the hope is to get to the point where it is 99% accurate. Where are you on that?

Andrew Ng:

A couple of years ago, we started betting heavily on speech recognition because we felt that it was on the cusp of being so accurate that you would use it all the time. And the difference between speech recognition that is 95% accurate, which is where we were several years ago, versus 99% accuracy isn’t just an incremental improvement.

It’s the difference between you barely using it, like a couple of years ago, versus you using it all the time and not even thinking about it. At Baidu we have passed the knee of that adoption curve. Over the past year, we’ve seen about 100% year-to-year growth in the daily active use of speech recognition across our assets, and we project that this will continue to grow.

In a few years everyone will be using speech recognition. It will feel natural. You’ll soon forget what it was like before you could talk to computers.•

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Economist Tyler Cowen just did a fun Ask Me Anything at Reddit, discussing driverless cars, the Hyperloop, wealth redistribution, Universal Basic Income, the American Dream, etc.

Cowen also discusses Peter Thiel’s role in the Trump Administration, though his opinion seems too coy. We’re not talking about someone who just so happens to work for a “flawed” Administration but a serious supporter of a deeply racist campaign to elect a wholly unqualified President and empower a cadre of Breitbart bigots. Trump owns the mess he’s creating, but Thiel does also. The most hopeful thing you can say about the Silicon Valley billionaire, who was also sure there were WMDs in Iraq, is that outside of his realm he has no idea what he’s doing. The least hopeful is that he’s just not a good person.

A few exchanges follow.


Question:

What is an issue or concept in economics that you wish were easier to explain so that it would be given more attention by the public?

Tyler Cowen:

The idea that a sound polity has to be based on ideas other than just redistribution of wealth.


Question:

What do you think about Peter Thiel’s relationship with President Trump?

Tyler Cowen:

I haven’t seen Peter since his time with Trump. I am not myself a Trump supporter, but wish to reserve judgment until I know more about Peter’s role. I am not in general opposed to the idea of people working with administrations that may have serious flaws.


Question:

In a recent article by you, you spoke about who in the US was experiencing the American Dream, finding evidence that the Dream is still alive and thriving for Hispanics in the U.S. What challenges do you perceive now with the new Administration that might reduce the prospects for this group?

Tyler Cowen:

Breaking up families, general feeling of hostility, possibly damaging the economy of Mexico and relations with them. All bad trends. I am hoping the strong and loving ties across the people themselves will outweigh that. We will see, but on this I am cautiously optimistic.


Question:

Do you think convenience apps like Amazon grocery make us more complacent?

Tyler Cowen:

Anything shipped to your home — worry! Getting out and about is these days underrated. Serendipitous discovery and the like. Confronting the physical spaces we have built, and, eventually, demanding improvements in them.


Question:

Given that universal basic income or similar scheme will become necessity after large scale automation kicks in, will these arguments about fiscal and budgetary crisis still hold true?

And with self driving cars and tech like Hyperloop, wouldn’t the rents in the cities go down?

Tyler Cowen:

Driverless cars are still quite a while away in their most potent form, as that requires redoing the whole infrastructure. But so far I see location only becoming more important, even in light of tech developments, such as the internet, that were supposed to make it less important. It is hard for me to see how a country with so many immigrants will tolerate a UBI. I think that idea is for Denmark and New Zealand, I don’t see it happening in the United States. Plus it can cost a lot too. So the arguments about fiscal crisis I think still hold.


Question:

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?

Tyler Cowen:

Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.


Question:

I am a single guy. Can learning economics help me find a girlfriend?

Tyler Cowen:

No, it will hurt you. Run the other way!•

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In the Financial Times interview with Daniel Dennett I recently blogged about, a passage covers a compelling idea hatched by the philosopher and MIT’s Deb Roy in “Our Transparent Future,” a 2015 Scientific American article. The academics argue that the radical transparency now taking hold because of new technological tools, which will only grow more profound as we are lowered even further into a machine with no OFF switch, is akin to the circumstances that may have catalyzed the Cambrian explosion.

In that epoch, it might have been an abundance of light that shined through in a newly transparent atmosphere which forced organisms to adapt and led to tremendous growth–and also death. Dennett and Roy believe that society’s traditional institutions (government, marriage, education, etc.) are facing the same challenge to reinvent themselves or else, due to the tremendous flow of information we have today at our fingertips. Now that privacy is all but impossible, what is the best way to arrange ourselves? 

The opening:

MORE THAN HALF A BILLION YEARS AGO A SPECTACULARLY CREATIVE burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them. 

Whereas before all perception was proximal—by contact or by sensed differences in chemical concentration or pressure waves—now animals could identify and track things at a distance. Predators could home in on their prey; prey could see the predators coming and take evasive action. Locomotion is a slow and stupid business until you have eyes to guide you, and eyes are useless if you cannot engage in locomotion, so perception and action evolved together in an arms race. This arms race drove much of the basic diversification of the tree of life we have today.

Parker’s hypothesis about the Cambrian explosion provides an excellent parallel for understanding a new, seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the spread of digital technology. Although advances in communications technology have transformed our world many times in the past—the invention of writing signaled the end of prehistory; the printing press sent waves of change through all the major institutions of society—digital technology could have a greater impact than anything that has come before. It will enhance the powers of some individuals and organizations while subverting the powers of others, creating both opportunities and risks that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago. 

Through social media, the Internet has put global-scale communications tools in the hands of individuals. A wild new frontier has burst open. Services such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp and SnapChat generate new media on a par with the telephone or television—and the speed with which these media are emerging is truly disruptive. It took decades for engineers to develop and deploy telephone and television networks, so organizations had some time to adapt. Today a social-media service can be developed in weeks, and hundreds of millions of people can be using it within months. This intense pace of innovation gives organizations no time to adapt to one medium before the arrival of the next.

The tremendous change in our world triggered by this media inundation can be summed up in a word: transparency. We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before—and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.

The impact on our organizations and institutions will be profound. Governments, armies, churches, universities, banks and companies all evolved to thrive in a relatively murky epistemological environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept, and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct.•

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A little more on Cambridge Analytica, which Carole Caldwalla reported on recently in the Guardian. The audience-targeting company is being given significant credit by some for powering the Trump campaign to Electoral College victory. My main hesitation with believing online fake news was an predominant factor in the recent election is that Trump won overwhelmingly with older Americans, who seem to have been more plugged into Fox News than Facebook. It may have played a role, but did it really have a greater impact than, say, a legacy-media company like the New York Times, running an un-skeptical headline above the fold about the FBI suspiciously reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails? Or Russia hacking the election? It’s hard to untangle what just went on, but looking for a single smoking gun will probably always prove unsatisfactory. 

From Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim of the New York Times

Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board.

But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — “our secret sauce,” Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.

Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign. The technology — prominently featured in the firm’s sales materials and in media reports that cast Cambridge as a master of the dark campaign arts — remains unproved, according to former employees and Republicans familiar with the firm’s work.

“They’ve got a lot of really smart people,” said Brent Seaborn, managing partner of TargetPoint, a rival business that also provided voter data to the Trump campaign. “But it’s not as easy as it looks to transition from being excellent at one thing and bringing it into politics. I think there’s a big question about whether we think psychographic profiling even works.”•

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Late to Industrialization, China entered the process knowing what much of the Western world had to learn the hard way in the 1970s: Urbanizing and modernizing an entire nation brings with it tremendous economic growth, but it can’t be sustained by the same methods–or perhaps at all–when the mission is complete. It’s a one-time-only bargain.

A richer nation can’t grow endlessly on the production of cheap exports, so the newly minted superpower is pivoting more to domestic demand, a nuance no doubt lost in the Trump Administration’s ham-handed appreciation of global politics. In “Trump’s Most Chilling Economic Lie,” a Joseph Stiglitz Vanity Fair “Hive” article, the economist highlights the insanity of America engaging in a trade war with China and expecting to emerge the richer. An excerpt:

Trump’s team may be tempted to conclude, naively, that because China exports so much more to the U.S. than the U.S. exports to China, the loss of a huge export market would hurt them more than it would hurt us. This reasoning is too simplistic by half. China’s government has far more control over the country’s economy than our government has over ours; and it is moving from export dependence to a model of growth driven by domestic demand. Any restriction on exports to the U.S. would simply accelerate a process already underway. Moreover, China’s government has the resources (it’s still sitting on some $3 trillion of reserves) and instruments to help any sector that has been shut out—and in this respect, too, China is better placed than the U.S.

China has already shown how it is likely to respond if Trump should launch a trade war. At Davos, President Xi Jinping came out as the great supporter of globalization and the international rule of law—as well China should. China, with its large emerging middle class, is among the big beneficiaries of globalization. Critics have said that China does not always play fair. They complain that as China has grown, it has taken away some of the privileges, some of the tax preferences, that it gave to foreigners in earlier stages of development. They are unhappy, too, that some Chinese firms have learned quickly how to compete—some of them even appropriating ideas from others, just as we appropriated intellectual property from Europe more than a century ago.

It is worth noting that, although large multinationals complain, they are not leaving. And we tend to forget the extensive restrictions we impose on Chinese firms when they seek to invest in the U.S. or buy high-tech products. Indeed, the Chinese frequently point out that if the U.S. lifted those restrictions, America’s trade deficit with China would be smaller.

China’s first response will be to try to find areas of cooperation. They are experts in construction. They know how to build high-speed trains. They might even provide some financing for these projects. Given Trump’s rhetoric, though, I suspect that such cooperation is just a dream.

If Trump insists on an adversarial stance, China is likely to respond within the framework of international law even if Trump puts little weight on such agreements—and thus is not likely to retaliate in a naive, tit-for-tat way. But China has made it clear that it will respond. And if history is any guide, it will respond both forcefully and intelligently, hitting us where it hurts economically and politically—where, for instance, cutbacks in purchases by China will lead to more unemployment in congressional districts that are vulnerable, influential, or both. If Boeing’s order book is thin, it might, for instance, cancel its purchases of Boeing planes.•

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Some things take on a life of their own, even when they’re not actually living. AI will likely slot into this category.

When Bill Gates suggests America tax robots not only to provide opportunities to those squeezed from the middle class but to also slow down innovation, he’s analyzing the situation as it if it existed inside a vacuum. That’s not the way technology proceeds.

Developing new tools is part of a constant competition among and within states and corporations. Innovating is paramount to maintaining a competitive edge in the marketplace or battlefield. Of course, holding your position or gaining an advantage means a nation (or nations) may be careering down a perilous path. Being militarily prepared for danger can, paradoxically, be very dangerous. The same will be true of biotech.

From Morgan Chalfant’s The Hill story about the surprising speed with which robotic soldiers may be reporting for duty:

Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, said that artificial intelligence is among potential “disruptions” being developed in the realm of cyber conflict. 

“It’s not just when is it going to happen, but we don’t yet know is it going to privilege the offense or defense, what are going to be the affects of it,” Singer said, recommending that Congress hold a classified hearing on where the U.S. stands in comparison to likely adversaries on this capability. 

“We don’t want to fall behind,” he said. 

Healey expressed concerns about the possibility of artificial intelligence augmenting our adversaries’ offensive capabilities more significantly than the United States’ defense of its critical infrastructure. 

“The part of it that particularly worries me the most is that on the defensive side many people are thinking that artificial intelligence, new heuristics, better analytics and automation are going to help the defense, that if only we can roll these things out faster we will be better and the system will be more stable,” Healey explained.

“I think that these technologies are going to aid the offense much more than it aids the defense because to defend against these kinds of attacks, you need your own super computer,” he continued. 

Healey warned that while the Pentagon can afford computer systems necessary to defend against adversaries using artificial intelligence, small- or mid-sized enterprises that own U.S. critical infrastructure cannot.

“It leaves much of America undefended,” he said.•

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