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As I suspected, New Yorker editors seemed to have simply not believed Seymour Hersh’s contrarian reportage about the killing of Osama bin Laden which wound up published in the London Review of Books. So much is at stake here, journalistically as well as politically, as Hersh being correct would mean that essentially every American news organization was guilty of a dereliction of duty on par with the one many committed in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. But Hersh’s sources, few and murky, aren’t proof on their own of any such grand failing.

Max Fisher of Vox lays into Hersh’s revisionist narrative but good, speaking along the way to the passage that struck me as the most fabulistic: the terrorist’s corpse being flung piece by piece from a helicopter. I guess anything’s possible in this crazy world, but asserting behavior that insane requires some sort of clear confirmation. An excerpt:

As for Hersh’s story of what really happened to bin Laden’s body — “torn to pieces with rifle fire” and thrown bit by bit out the door of the escaping helicopter, until there was not enough left to bury — it is difficult to know where to begin. It is outlandish to imagine small arms fire reducing a 6-foot-4 man “to pieces,” not to mention the sheer quantity of time and bullets this would take. Are we really to believe that special forces would spend who knows how long gleefully carving up bin Laden like horror movie villains, and then later reaching into the body bag to chuck pieces of him out of a helicopter, for no reason at all? On the most sensitive and important operation of their careers?•

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Really fascinating article on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vanity Fair by Sebastian Junger, which questions much of the generally accepted wisdom about this mysterious, inconsistent war wound.

Just a few of Junger’s ideas: For the most part, military members, even those who’ve seen combat, don’t seem to experience higher suicide rates than the general public. Soldiers who kill remotely via drone are just as likely to suffer trauma as their counterparts who kill at close range. Those who experience no combat often have higher levels of PTSD than those who see heavy combat. Just puzzling. Elite soldiers rarely experience such troubles, perhaps because they’ve reached that status thanks in part to possessing high levels of a particular amino acid which acts as a natural buffer against stress. And the questions are obviously thorny regarding soldiers receiving permanent disability for what often doesn’t need be permanently disabling.

An excerpt:

Suicide by combat veterans is often seen as an extreme expression of PTSD, but currently there is no statistical relationship between suicide and combat, according to a study published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Combat veterans are no more likely to kill themselves than veterans who were never under fire. The much-discussed estimated figure of 22 vets a day committing suicide is deceptive: it was only in 2008, for the first time in decades, that the U.S. Army veteran suicide rate, though enormously tragic, surpassed the civilian rate in America. And even so, the majority of veterans who kill themselves are over the age of 50. Generally speaking, the more time that passes after a trauma, the less likely a suicide is to have anything to do with it, according to many studies. Among younger vets, deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan lowers the incidence of suicide because soldiers with obvious mental-health issues are less likely to be deployed with their units, according to an analysis published in Annals of Epidemiology in 2015. The most accurate predictor of post-deployment suicide, as it turns out, isn’t combat or repeated deployments or losing a buddy but suicide attempts before deployment. The single most effective action the U.S. military could take to reduce veteran suicide would be to screen for pre-existing mental disorders.

It seems intuitively obvious that combat is connected to psychological trauma, but the relationship is a complicated one. Many soldiers go through horrific experiences but fare better than others who experienced danger only briefly, or not at all. Unmanned-drone pilots, for instance—who watch their missiles kill human beings by remote camera—have been calculated as having the same PTSD rates as pilots who fly actual combat missions in war zones, according to a 2013 analysis published in the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report. And even among regular infantry, danger and psychological breakdown during combat are not necessarily connected. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was invaded simultaneously by Egypt and Syria, rear-base troops in the Israeli military had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite frontline troops, relative to their casualties. And during the air campaign of the first Gulf War, more than 80 percent of psychiatric casualties in the U.S. Army’s VII Corps came from support units that took almost no incoming fire, according to a 1992 study on Army stress casualties.•


“We live in the most exciting time ever,” writes Peter Diamandis, and I don’t disagree. But we probably should recall the sly, old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Great opportunities and upheaval and ethical challenges are within reach, so extend your arms, embrace fully, and hold on for dear life.

Here are two items from Diamandis’ list of eight areas of near-term transformation included in his post “The World in 2025“:

3. Perfect Knowledge: We’re heading towards a world of perfect knowledge. With a trillion sensors gathering data everywhere (autonomous cars, satellite systems, drones, wearables, cameras), you’ll be able to know anything you want, anytime, anywhere, and query that data for answers and insights.

7. Early Days of JARVIS: Artificial intelligence research will make strides in the next decade. If you think Siri is useful now, the next decade’s generation of Siri will be much more like JARVIS from Iron Man, with expanded capabilities to understand and answer. Companies like IBM Watson, DeepMind and Vicarious continue to hunker down and develop next-generation AI systems. In a decade, it will be normal for you to give your AI access to listen to all of your conversations, read your emails and scan your biometric data because the upside and convenience will be so immense.•



I don’t know that Edward Luce of the Financial Times says anything new in slapping down Thomas Friedman’s 1990s “Golden Arches Doctrine,” which declared that nations on the same supply chain of Happy Meals wouldn’t engage in war, a theory clearly debunked by now, but he says it exceedingly well. The world may be flat as a patty, but it still can burn. An excerpt:

Even when societies turn middle class, conflict is endemic to our species. The return of great power rivalry in the 21st century reminds us that we are not purely economic animals. Were that the case, we would long ago have lowered transaction costs by abolishing nation states and currencies.

The fact that diverse cultures share bad habits and use the same technology should not be over-interpreted. China’s politburo has been dressing in business suits for years. Jihadi fighters wear jeans and surf on their iPhones (doubtless some have a weakness for chicken McNuggets). They still revile the global hegemon. The presence of hundreds of McDonald’s outlets in Russia did not stop Vladimir Putin last year from annexing Crimea, which also had McDonald’s outlets. The chain has since withdrawn from the peninsula but not from the rest of Ukraine. Nor is McDonald’s presence likely to prevent a fifth war between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile China’s global integration does not seem to have checked its sense of nationalism.

Geopolitics is clearly back.•

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Ted Greenwald of the Wall Street Journal presents a sober, clear-headed assessment of the threats posed to us by both Weak AI and Strong AI, with the help of Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, IBM cognitive-computing expert Guruduth S. Banavar and computer science professor Francesca Rossi. One exchange:


Some experts believe that AI is already taking jobs away from people. Do you agree?

Jaan Tallinn:

Technology has always had the tendency to make jobs obsolete. I’m reminded of an Uber driver whose services I used a while ago. His seat was surrounded by numerous gadgets, and he demonstrated enthusiastically how he could dictate my destination address to a tablet and receive driving instructions. I pointed out to him that, in a few years, maybe the gadgets themselves would do the driving. To which he gleefully replied that then he could sit back and relax—leaving me to quietly shake my head in the back seat. I do believe the main effect of self-driving cars will come not from their convenience but from the massive impact they will have on the job market.

In the long run, we should think about how to organize society around something other than near-universal employment.•

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Almost as fascinating as Seymour Hersh’s revisionist account of the killing of Osama bin Laden, which asserts that much of what the Administration said about the mission (from planning to burial at sea) is a lie, is that it’s published in the London Review of Books rather than the New Yorker. The latter, Hersh’s longtime main outlet, had two possible reasons to pass on the article. One is that his piece disagrees strongly with the New Yorker account of the mission in 2011 on everything from bin Laden’s courier being tracked to a SEAL lying down next to the terrorist mastermind’s corpse so that his height could be measured. But I don’t think the editors would behave that way if they felt Hersh had gotten a story they missed on. They must have simply not trusted Hersh’s version based on their own reporting on the subject (which doesn’t mean they’re right, of course). I also doubt the New Yorker rejecting the journalist’s 2013 Syria report would have made a collaboration untenable if the magazine wanted this article, nor do I think his reportage endangers anyone involved in the mission.

An excerpt:

At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters. The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the ISI hours before the raid began. One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls of the compound, injuring many on board. ‘The guys knew the TOT [time on target] had to be tight because they would wake up the whole town going in,’ the retired official said. The cockpit of the crashed Black Hawk, with its communication and navigational gear, had to be destroyed by concussion grenades, and this would create a series of explosions and a fire visible for miles. Two Chinook helicopters had flown from Afghanistan to a nearby Pakistani intelligence base to provide logistical support, and one of them was immediately dispatched to Abbottabad. But because the helicopter had been equipped with a bladder loaded with extra fuel for the two Black Hawks, it first had to be reconfigured as a troop carrier. The crash of the Black Hawk and the need to fly in a replacement were nerve-wracking and time-consuming setbacks, but the Seals continued with their mission. There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone. ‘Everyone in Pakistan has a gun and high-profile, wealthy folks like those who live in Abbottabad have armed bodyguards, and yet there were no weapons in the compound,’ the retired official pointed out. Had there been any opposition, the team would have been highly vulnerable. Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters. The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings; bin Laden’s rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden’s wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet – perhaps a stray round – struck her knee. Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The Obama administration’s account would hold otherwise.)

‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ Some of the Seals were appalled later at the White House’s initial insistence that they had shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said. ‘Six of the Seals’ finest, most experienced NCOs, faced with an unarmed elderly civilian, had to kill him in self-defence? The house was shabby and bin Laden was living in a cell with bars on the window and barbed wire on the roof. The rules of engagement were that if bin Laden put up any opposition they were authorised to take lethal action. But if they suspected he might have some means of opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him. So here’s this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him. It’s not because he was reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy.’ The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’

After they killed bin Laden, ‘the Seals were just there, some with physical injuries from the crash, waiting for the relief chopper,’ the retired official said. ‘Twenty tense minutes. The Black Hawk is still burning. There are no city lights. No electricity. No police. No fire trucks. They have no prisoners.’ Bin Laden’s wives and children were left for the ISI to interrogate and relocate. ‘Despite all the talk,’ the retired official continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices. The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.’


Charles Murray, “thought leader,” claims to be truly and deeply in love with both meritocracy and Sarah Palin, which seems an impossible balancing act, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I suppose.

The political scientist is particularly fond of making arguments that support his ideological beliefs, while conveniently forgetting to mention inconvenient truths. Case in point: His new “Saturday Essay” in the WSJ which decries regulation in America, without once mentioning that watered-down and nonexistent regulations led to the 2008 economic collapse. Oh well, spilt milk. He also neither raises the rules of policing that have long been aimed at African-Americans, nor the so-called quality-of-life offenses which hector the poorest among us. There’s bureaucracy worth fighting against.

Some regulations are excessive, but often they’re there to begin with to protect us, because before they existed corporations and other institutions were rapacious. Seat belts and airbags don’t wind up in cars without government. These rules are sometimes clumsy and should be improved when they are, but a barber being forced by the state to be licensed doesn’t drown us in a sea of debt and destroy lives. A free market without regulations does that. Somehow Murray forget to address this point.

An excerpt:

Whether we are trying to raise our children, be good stewards of our property, cooperate with our neighbors to solve local problems or practice our religious faith, the bureaucrats think they know better. And when the targets of the regulatory state say they’ve had enough, that they will fight it in court, the bureaucrats can—and do—say to them, “Try that, and we’ll ruin you.”

That’s the regulatory state as seen from ground level by the individual citizens who run afoul of it. It looks completely different when we back off and look at it from a distance. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has authority over more than eight million workplaces. But it can call upon only one inspector for about every 3,700 of those workplaces. The Environmental Protection Agency has authority not just over workplaces but over every piece of property in the nation. It conducted about 18,000 inspections in 2013—a tiny number in proportion to its mandate.

Seen in this perspective, the regulatory state is the Wizard of Oz: fearsome when its booming voice is directed against any single target but, when the curtain is pulled aside, revealed as impotent to enforce its thousands of rules against widespread refusal to comply.

And so my modest proposal: Let’s withhold that compliance through systematic civil disobedience. Not for all regulations, but for the pointless, stupid and tyrannical ones.•


There’s long been an argument to establish a human-kidney market in the U.S. and other nations to reduce the ever-growing transplant waiting list. In telling the story of a kidney sale in Iran which does not end well for either side of the transaction, Francesco Alesi and Luca Muzi of the Guardian analyze that country’s legally sanctioned system, which plays upon the desperations of both buyers and sellers. An excerpt:

Iran is the only country in the world where it is legal to sell a kidney. The “Rewarded Gifting” act was approved by the Iranian Board of Ministers in 1997; two years later the waiting list for kidney transplants had almost disappeared. The state guarantees a cash reward of the equivalent of about £300 to each donor, and one year of medical insurance. But most of the “gifting” is done in private transactions.

Written in marker pen on the walls outside hospitals where transplant operations are performed are thousands of adverts like these: “A+ 25 years, I sell my kidney”, or “B neg sells kidney, 33, a bargain”. The essential information is blood type, phone number and age. The closer you get to 35, the maximum age to donate a kidney in Iran, the lower the price.

“I wanted to become a teacher, but I had to stop studying because of the disease,” says Ghaffar. “In these years I had only one purpose – to find a donor.” Ghaffar has called hundreds of numbers and has found 72 possible donors with his own blood type. They were all rejected by the doctors due to incompatibilities, or because of their poor health. “One year ago I found a donor, Ashkan, he passed all compatibility tests, but he took the money three days before the operation and disappeared. I was desperate.

“A few months later, I saw Narin’s notice. I called her, she wanted 20 million Toman, I could offer her only 13. In the end we agreed to 15 million [£3,600]”.

Ghaffar’s experience is unusual in Iran. Only the wealthy can normally afford to buy a kidney…•

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Hmm, I don’t agree with Vivek Wadhwa that there’ll be no role for humans in labor in the future, but it will take far less than a total foundering of our system for us to find ourselves with an unacceptable level of technological unemployment, so I certainly concur with him in the bigger picture. From Cole Stangler at International Business Times:

The breadth and speed of recent innovations — think robotics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and 3D printers — coupled with relatively high unemployment, have fueled a debate over whether humans will be permanently erased from the labor force. It’s a potentially dystopian landscape that would have future workers longing for the unemployment rate seen in Friday’s job figures.

“I’m really worried about this,” says Vivek Wadhwa, author and fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance. “In the long term, I see no role for human beings.”

Wadhwa recently oversaw academic programs at Singularity University, a think tank-like group in Silicon Valley whose goal is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

He says self-driving cars and trains will replace workers in the transportation industry, artificial intelligence, sensors and smartphones will eliminate the need for most doctors, nurses and surgeons–and algorithms will displace most human writers. (“I don’t mean to insult your profession,” he says.)

All of this, Wadhwa says, will happen in the next five to 15 years.•

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I’m nearly done with Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, an excellent book I’ll have more to say about soon. The author sat for an episode of the Review the Future podcast and spoke on automation and wealth inequality.

Ford agrees with something I mentioned in response to Thomas Piketty’s suggestion that we counteract our 1% world with an investment in education (and re-education). While that would be great, I think it likely won’t be nearly enough to solve income disparity or technological unemployment.

Two exchanges from the podcast follow.


Jon Perry: 

This topic often is scoffed at by economists, which is something you mentioned in your first book The Lights in the Tunnel, that it was almost unthinkable to a lot of people. I’m curious, as that book came out in 2009 and now six years have gone by, how has the conversation around this issue changed since then?

Martin Ford:

Well, I think it’s definitely changed and it’s become a lot more visible. As you say, when I wrote that book, I mentioned that it was almost unthinkable in terms of the way economists approached it, and that’s less true today. There are definitely some economists out there, at least a few, that are now talking seriously about this. So, it’s really been quite a dramatic change as these technologies and the implications of them have become more visible.

Having said that, I still think this is very much an idea that is outside the mainstream, and a lot of the economists that do talk about it tend to take what I would call a very conservative tack, which is they still tend to believe that the solution to all this is more education and training–all we have to do is train people so that they can climb the skills ladder and keep ahead of the machines. I think that’s an idea that pretty much has run out of steam, and we probably need to look at more radical proposals going forward. But definitely it is a much more visible topic now than it was back in 2009.


Jon Perry: 

Now, we’ve had information technology for not that long, but we’ve had it for a little while now, and there are certainly some troubling economic trends that we see–stagnating wages, rising inequality, for example. To what extent can we say that, say, information technology or even technology in general is at least partially the cause of these economic trends? And if that’s the thesis here, what would be the best way to actually try to tease that apart and measure technology’s impact on the labor force going forward?

Martin Ford:

It’s kind of a challenging problem. I believe obviously very strongly that information technology has been an important part of it. I would not argue that it’s all of it by any means. And in my new book, Rise of the Robots, I point out about seven general trends that you can look at.

That includes the fact that wages have stagnated while productivity has continued to increase, so productivity and incomes have kind of decoupled. It includes the fact that the share of income going to labor as opposed to capital has gone into a pretty precipitous decline, especially since the year 2000. The labor force participation rate, meaning the number of people who are actually actively engaged in work, is falling. We’re seeing wages for college graduates actually going into decline, so it’s not the case anymore that people with higher educations are doing extremely well; a lot of people with college degrees are also being impacted.

So, there are a number of things you could look at there, and the thing is that if you take any one of these and you look at the research that economists have done, there are lots of explanations. Technology is nearly always one of the explanations, but there, of course, are other explanations. There’s globalization, there’s a basic change in our politics, which will become more conservative. In particular, there’s the decimation of unions in the private sector. Depending on who’s doing the analysis and sometimes what their agenda is, they will point to those things as being more important than technology.

But what I believe is that if you take all of that evidence collectively, if you look at all of those things together, it’s really hard to come up with one explanation other than technology that can explain all of those things.•

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In a Washington Post article, Dominic Basulto reports on significant changes in synthetic biology, one of which is DARPA deciding to move forward in earnest into the field. “Engineering biology is emerging as a powerful technology with the potential for significant impact,” as the Defense agency asserts, in a statement marked by both potential and peril. One positive would be the work being applied to the manufacture of cities both on Earth and in space. On the other hand, the creation of synthetic life will pose ethical issues and risks, though it likewise could be a boon to medicine. In the long run, I feel it’s inevitable.

An excerpt:

After announcing the launch of its new Biological Technologies Office in April 2014, DARPA is finally moving off the sidelines and getting into the game. If DARPA brings the same innovation know-how to synthetic biology that it has brought to fields such as robotics, the Internet and autonomous vehicles, this could be big. At the Biology is Technology (BiT) event hosted by DARPA in San Francisco in mid-February, the agency sought to outline all the innovative ways that it hoped to use biology for defense technology, such as through its Living Foundries program.

At the BiT event, which included a keynote from Craig Venter and a fireside chat with George Church, DARPA Deputy Program Director Alicia Jackson laid out a compelling new vision for “Programming the Living World” that focused on biology as a radically new type of manufacturing platform. The goal, said Jackson, is to take everything researchers know from electronics, physics and engineering and migrate that over to the world of genomics and biology, making it possible to mass-produce engineered organisms. Jackson called synthetic biology a “new technology vector” that is more exciting and more scalable than anything that exists today.•

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In “The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence,” the Economist considers the insinuation of Weak AI in our lives, for better and worse, and the longer-range concerns about Strong AI. The (un-bylined) writer compares conscious machines, if they’re ever realized, to bureaucracies, military and markets, though I don’t know that the sometimes uncontrollable nature of those things is a perfect analogue. An excerpt:

The first step is to understand what computers can now do and what they are likely to be able to do in the future. Thanks to the rise in processing power and the growing abundance of digitally available data, AI is enjoying a boom in its capabilities (seearticle). Today’s “deep learning” systems, by mimicking the layers of neurons in a human brain and crunching vast amounts of data, can teach themselves to perform some tasks, from pattern recognition to translation, almost as well as humans can. As a result, things that once called for a mind—from interpreting pictures to playing the video game “Frogger”—are now within the scope of computer programs. DeepFace, an algorithm unveiled by Facebook in 2014, can recognise individual human faces in images 97% of the time.

Crucially, this capacity is narrow and specific. Today’s AI produces the semblance of intelligence through brute number-crunching force, without any great interest in approximating how minds equip humans with autonomy, interests and desires. Computers do not yet have anything approaching the wide, fluid ability to infer, judge and decide that is associated with intelligence in the conventional human sense.

Yet AI is already powerful enough to make a dramatic difference to human life. It can already enhance human endeavour by complementing what people can do. Think of chess, which computers now play better than any person. The best players in the world are not machines however, but what Garry Kasparov, a grandmaster, calls “centaurs”: amalgamated teams of humans and algorithms. Such collectives will become the norm in all sorts of pursuits: supported by AI, doctors will have a vastly augmented ability to spot cancers in medical images; speech-recognition algorithms running on smartphones will bring the internet to many millions of illiterate people in developing countries; digital assistants will suggest promising hypotheses for academic research; image-classification algorithms will allow wearable computers to layer useful information onto people’s views of the real world.

Even in the short run, not all the consequences will be positive.•

Last year, I posted a 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article in which Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics, predicted society being crushed by the metal grip of robots, with automation upending our accepted order. The year prior he was assigned to write “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be” by the New York Times. The piece was never published. That article is referenced in Martin Ford’s provocative new book, The Rise of the Robots, so I thought I would present an excerpt (which eventually made it into the NYT two years ago). From the “Mass-Produced Laborers” section:

We have so far spoken of the computing machine as an analogue to the human nervous system rather than to the whole of the human organism. Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.

In these the ultra-rapid digital computing machines will be supplemented by pieces of apparatus which take the readings of gauges, of thermometers, or photo-electric cells, and translate them into the digital input of computing machines. The new assemblages will also contain effectors, by which the numerical output of the central machine will be converted into the rotation of shafts, or the admission of chemicals into a tank, or the heating of a boiler, or some other process of the kind.

Furthermore, the actual performance of these effector organs as well as their desired performance will be read by suitable gauges and taken back into the machine as part of the information on which it works.

The general outline of the processes to be carried out will be determined by what computation engineers call taping, which will state and determine the sequence of the processes to be performed. The possibility of learning may be built in by allowing the taping to be re-established in a new way by the performance of the machine and the external impulses coming into it, rather than having it determined by a closed and rigid setup, to be imposed on the apparatus from the beginning.

The limitations of such a machine are simply those of an understanding of the objects to be attained, and of the potentialities of each stage of the processes by which they are to be attained, and of our power to make logically determinate combinations of those processes to achieve our ends. Roughly speaking, if we can do anything in a clear and intelligible way, we can do it by machine.•

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In a lucid and lively NYRB review of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, a new volume which suggests that a myriad of grassroots problems have caused social mobility to founder, Nicholas Lemann astutely questions if the author perhaps has the cause and effect confused. Maybe a fraying social fabric hasn’t led to a decline in upward mobility but a flattening of the middle class and those who aspire to it has instead caused a sense of community to crumble. 

Due to globalization, de-unionization, changes in taxation and automation, the piece of the American pie enjoyed by the non-wealthy has been in steep decline in the U.S. since 1974. Between the lines, Putnam, like Lemann and Thomas Piketty, seems to acknowledge that higher education, more than social capital, is a likelier remedy to the problem. I wonder, though, how much longer that will be true. Technological forces that have disrupted other industries will likely soon come for the university, which could lead to an increased polarization in credentials and access (even as more knowledge than ever will be available online). That shift coupled with what might be a decline in opportunity owing to robotization could neutralize even the great equalizer.

Another interesting bit from Lemann: Individual mobility has always been something of a myth, as each person has usually been raised or lowered by the greater sweep of history and politics. Dick, born at an inopportune moment, would likely remain ragged.  

An excerpt:

By the logic of the book, access to social capital ought to be strongly associated with going to college and doing well there—otherwise, why stress it so strongly? The syllogism would be: social capital leads to educational attainment, which leads to mobility. But for his classmates, Putnam reports, academic achievement was the factor most predictive of college attendance, and the link between such achievement and parental encouragement (of the kind he has copiously praised in the main body of the book) was only “modestly important,” and “much weaker” than the link between class rank and college attendance. Not only that:

No other measure of parental affluence or family structure or neighborhood social capital (or indeed anything else we had measured)—none of the factors that this book has shown are so important in producing today’s opportunity gap—had any appreciable effect on college attendance or other educational attainment.

In the methods appendix, Putnam refers readers to his website for more detail on his findings about his classmates. There, he writes:

No measure of parental resources adds any predictive power whatsoever—not parental occupational status, not parental unemployment, not family economic insecurity during high school, not homeownership, not neighborhood characteristics, and not family structure…. Parental education, parental encouragement, and class rank were all modestly predictive of extracurricular participation, but holding constant those variables, extracurricular participation itself was unrelated to college-going.

So is it really the case that Putnam has shown that strong social capital once produced individual opportunity—let alone that the deterioration of social capital has produced what he calls the opportunity gap? The passages I just quoted seem to indicate that the strong association between social capital and opportunity that is Putnam’s core assertion has not been proven. Putnam doesn’t define “social capital” precisely enough to rigorously test its effects, even on as small and unrepresentative a sample as the one in his survey, and he doesn’t attempt to test its effects precisely in the present. It could even be that, rather than social capital generating prosperity, prosperity might generate social capital, which would mean Putnam has been showing us the effects of inequality, not the causes.•

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The second entry in the New York Times’ “Robotica” video series is a look at military-automation research by the Navy in San Diego. Right now the driverless vehicles and pet-like machines are being developed as tools to help “take our war fighters out of harm’s way,” but they will certainly be delegated more integral roles over time.

“I don’t see a robot that’s a killer robot,” says computer engineer Mark Tjersland, not seeming to realize he’s working on a project ripe for mission creep. Navy Bomb Technician Jeremy Owen acknowledges the military’s ultimate goal: “You’ll never completely eliminate the soldier from the fight, as much as they want to try to… maybe in a hundred years.”

Of course. even semi-autonomy could make robots deadlier, as drones have shown us, perhaps making war unthinkable–or even more inviting to those nations flourishing in advanced robotics.

When you live in North Korea, even China looks like freedom.

The Asahi Shimbun has an interview with a 31-year-old woman who defected from the late Kim Jong-il’s benighted nation in 2010, which provides a look into the clandestine country normally only visited by outsiders who happen to be Dennis Rodman or professional wrestlers. (Dan Greene of Sports Illustrated recently published an oral history of a 1995 North Korean wrestling tour.) There’s no horrific revelation, just a person awakened to the delusion she’d always lived within, a condition that can happen to a citizen of any country but is pretty much mandatory in North Korea. An excerpt:


What was ideology education like?


Among newspapers, there was the Rodong Sinmun for party members, another one read by the officers of labor federations and another one for young people. All newspapers had a regular section and a supplement.

The regular section ran stories about Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il visiting a local area to give instructions. The supplement contained information about daily life, such as the extent to which a spinning factory approached its production quota. The supplement also carried comics that said, “This is how crafty and bad the United States, South Korea and Japan are.” But the comics always ended up with North Korea winning.


Was there any change after Kim Jong Un took over as national leader?


I have heard that two to three layers of barbed wire were laid along the border with China. There were also moves to force people to appear at their workplace as well as an examination of family registers by the party. Moreover, instead of money, the party began collecting beans, sesame seeds, peanuts and sunflower seeds. An organized attempt was also made to stamp out reactionary elements in society with the creation of an “anti-socialism group.”


What kind of group was that?


The group consisted of members of the State Security Ministry (in charge of the secret police), the People’s Security Ministry (in charge of the regular police) and prosecutors.

Group members would walk around with neighborhood group leaders, and if a member said, “I want to enter that home,” they were able to conduct a search without a warrant. If the search turned up U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan or CDs, it was confiscated unconditionally.

Such crackdowns occurred even while we were doing business. But no problems arose as long as we gave them bribes, such as a few cartons of cigarettes.

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Los Angeles just got good, and now California, thirsty so thirsty, will be reduced to a desiccated mound of powder? Oh, the timing.

Of course, the state isn’t disappearing, but its way of life may be–the swimming pools and mountains of almonds. Governor Jerry Brown, trying to turn a negative into a positive, is attempting to lead California into a new era of conservation. But will even that be enough for our largest state and chief food supplier to retain its comfort and beauty? In a New York Times editorial, Timothy Egan, who studied the effects of weather on the land in his great 2005 Dustbowl book, The Worst Hard Timewonders if the current drought is merely prelude and if H2O may ultimately create a new class system of haves and have-nots. An excerpt:

There is nothing normal about the fourth year of the great drought: According to climate scientists, it may be the worst arid spell in 1,200 years. For all the fields that will go fallow, all the forests that will catch fire, all the wells that will come up dry, the lasting impact of this drought for the ages will be remembered, in the most exported term of California start-ups, as a disrupter.

“We are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in early April, in ordering the first mandatory statewide water rationing for cities.

Surprising, perhaps even disappointing to those with schadenfreude for the nearly 39 million people living in year-round sunshine, California will survive. It’s not going to blow away. The economy, now on a robust rebound, is not going to collapse. There won’t be a Tom Joad load of S.U.V.s headed north. Rains, and snow to the high Sierra, will eventually return.

But California, from this drought onward, will be a state transformed. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was human-caused, after the grasslands of the Great Plains were ripped up, and the land thrown to the wind. It never fully recovered. The California drought of today is mostly nature’s hand, diminishing an Eden created by man. The Golden State may recover, but it won’t be the same place.

Looking to the future, there is also the grim prospect that this dry spell is only the start of a “megadrought,” made worse by climate change. California has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs. What if the endless days without rain become endless years?


We shouldn’t use the term “Sharing Economy” because there’s no actual sharing involved. And “Peer Economy” doesn’t really say it since the workers aren’t treated like peers, far from it. But whatever the term, the Ubers and Lyfts and Airbnbs have made their way in the world by making up their own rules as needed and leaving until later any worry about preexisting legislation. It’s a willful attack upon convention, one that previously wrecked Napster but worked out wonderfully for Youtube. Google was also aided early in its development of driverless cars by just going forward with highway testing, only thinking about laws when they were presented in response.

It’s not so easy to reconcile one’s feelings about such corporate behavior. There are many good things that have come from such advances (e.g., smartphone hailing and payment for car service, the amazing archival video trove now available to us), but those ruined empires left behind also provided wealth now forever lost. For instance: Despite’s Napster’s own demise, the record-industry model was toppled, which might seem like a good thing, but didn’t it bring us so much joy across decades? It’s a complicated situation. From the Economist:

The tension between innovators and regulators has been particularly intense of late. Uber and Lyft have had complaints that their car-hailing services break all sorts of taxi regulations; people renting out rooms on Airbnb have been accused of running unlicensed hotels; Tesla, a maker of electric cars, has suffered legal setbacks in its attempts to sell directly to motorists rather than through independent dealers; and in its early days Prosper Marketplace, a peer-to-peer lending platform, suffered a “cease and desist” order from the Securities and Exchange Commission. It sometimes seems as if the best way to identify a hot new company is to look at the legal trouble it is in.

There are two big reasons for this growing friction. The first is that many innovative companies are using digital technology to attack heavily regulated bits of the service economy that are ripe for a shake-up. Often they do so by creating markets for surplus labour or resources, using websites and smartphone apps: Uber and Lyft let people turn their cars into taxis; Airbnb lets them rent out their spare rooms; Prosper lets them lend out their spare cash. Conventional taxi firms, hoteliers and banks argue, not unreasonably, that if they have to obey all sorts of regulations, so should their upstart competitors.

The second is the power of network effects: there are huge incentives to get to the market early and grow as quickly as possible, even if it means risking legal challenges. Benjamin Edelman of Harvard Business School argues that YouTube owes its success in part to this strategy.•

After finishing this (often) funny book about an unfunny subject, I started on Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots (excellent so far), which wonders if this new machine age will differ from the Industrial Age by not creating newer, better jobs to replace those disappeared by automation. So perhaps I’m thinking even more than usual about technological unemployment, especially in regards to the service sector, which, as Ford reminds, is where most Americans earn a living now and which is most prone to robotization. It isn’t so much a fear stoked by where Deep Learning is right now but where it may be a decade on. If it advances rapidly, how do we proceed?

In a Los Angeles Times piece, Jon Healey is concerned about the same after attending the Milken Global Conference panel on robotics. The opening:

Sometimes I wonder if I’m in the very last generation of newspaper reporters.

After hearing Jeremy Howard talk at a Milken Global Conference panel on robotics this week, however, I’m wondering if I’m in the very last generation of workers.

Howard is chief executive of Enlitic, which uses computers to help doctors make diagnoses. His technology relies on something known as machine learning, or the process by which a computer improves its own capabilities. He’s also a top data scientist, which gives him a much better view of what’s coming than most people have.

This year, Howard said, machines are better than humans at recognizing objects in an image. Now here’s the scary part. Compared to where they were in November, Howard said, they are 15 times faster in recognizing objects while being more accurate and using fewer computational resources. In five years, they will be 10,000 times faster.

“We are seeing order-of-magnitude improvements every few months,” Howard said. Similar leaps are starting to appear in computers’ ability to understand written text.

In five years’ time, a single computer could be hundreds or thousands of times better at that task than humans, Howard said. Combine it with other computers on a network, and the advantage becomes even more pronounced.

“Probably in your lifetime, certainly in your kids’ lifetime … computers will be better than humans at all these things,” he said. And within five years after that, they will be 1,000 times better.


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In a wonderful Backchannel piece, historian Leslie Berlin answers two key questions: “Why did Silicon Valley happen in the first place, and why has it remained at the epicenter of the global tech economy for so long?”

Sharing granular details (before the name “Silicon Valley” was popularized in 1971, the area was known as “Valley of the Heart’s Delight”) and big-picture items (William Shockley’s genius drew talent to the community, and his bizarre paranoia dispersed them), Berlin provides a full-bodied sense of the place’s past, something she says continues to be of interest to the latest wave of technologists.

The short answer to the two questions posed is that there was confluence of technical, cultural and financial forces in this place in a relatively short span of time, and these same factors continue to sustain the area’s growth. (Oh, and immigration helps.) An excerpt from the “Money” section:

The third key component driving the birth of Silicon Valley, along with the right technology seed falling into a particularly rich and receptive cultural soil, was money. Again, timing was crucial. Silicon Valley was kick-started by federal dollars. Whether it was the Department of Defense buying 100% of the earliest microchips, Hewlett-Packard and Lockheed selling products to military customers, or federal research money pouring into Stanford, Silicon Valley was the beneficiary of Cold War fears that translated to the Department of Defense being willing to spend almost anything on advanced electronics and electronic systems. The government, in effect, served as the Valley’s first venture capitalist.

The first significant wave of venture capital firms hit Silicon Valley in the 1970s. Both Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers were founded by Fairchild alumni in 1972. Between them, these venture firms would go on to fund Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dropbox, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Genentech, Google, Instagram, Intuit, and LinkedIn — and that is just the first half of the alphabet.

This model of one generation succeeding and then turning around to offer the next generation of entrepreneurs financial support and managerial expertise is one of the most important and under-recognized secrets to Silicon Valley’s ongoing success. Robert Noyce called it “re-stocking the stream I fished from.” Steve Jobs, in his remarkable 2005 commencement address at Stanford, used the analogy of a baton being passed from one runner to another in an ongoing relay across time.•

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It’s certainly disingenuous that the UK publication the Register plastered the word “EXCLUSIVE” on Brid-Aine Parnell’s Nick Bostrom interview, since the philosopher, who’s become widely known for writing about existential risks in his book Superintelligence, has granted many interviews in the past. The piece is useful, however, for making it clear that Bostrom is not a confirmed catastrophist, but rather someone posing questions about challenges we may (and probably will) face should our species continue in the longer term. An excerpt:

Even if we come up with a way to control the AI and get it to do “what we mean” and be friendly towards humanity, who then decides what it should do and who is to reap the benefits of the likely wild riches and post-scarcity resources of a superintelligence that can get us out into the stars and using the whole of the (uninhabited) cosmos.

“We’re not coming from a starting point of thinking the modern human condition is terrible, technology is undermining our human dignity,” Bostrom says. “It’s rather starting from a real fascination with all the cool stuff that technology can do and hoping we can get even more from it, but recognising that there are some particular technologies that also could bring risks that we really need to handle very carefully.

“I feel a little bit like humanity is a bit like an infant or a teenager: some fairly immature person who has got their hands on increasingly powerful instruments. And it’s not clear that our wisdom has kept pace with our increasing technological prowess. But the solution to that is to try to turbo-charge the growth of our wisdom and our ability to solve global coordination problems. Technology will not wait for us, so we need to grow up a little bit faster.”

Bostrom believes that humanity will have to collaborate on the creation of an AI and ensure its goal is the greater good of everyone, not just a chosen few, after we have worked hard on solving the control problem. Only then does the advent of artificial intelligence and subsequent superintelligence stand the greatest chance of coming up with utopia instead of paperclipped dystopia.

But it’s not exactly an easy task.•

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In way or another, bigots are almost always the thing they hate.

It just isn’t always literally so as in the case of Hungarian politician Csanad Szegedi, who was a far-right anti-Semite, until discovering he was Jewish. That stunning revelation, which occurred three years ago, knocked him from his perch, forcing him to learn to walk again as an adult. Nick Thorpe of the BBC follows up with a report. An excerpt: 

He comes across a bit like the American singer Johnny Cash. “Hello, I’m Csanad Szegedi.” And the schoolchildren of the Piarist Secondary School in Szeged hang on every word.

“I’m speaking to you here today,” says the tall chubby faced man, with small, intelligent eyes, “because if someone had told me when I was 16 or 17 what I’m going to go tell you now, I might not have gone so far astray.”

As deputy leader of the radical nationalist Jobbik party in Hungary, Szegedi co-founded the Hungarian Guard – a paramilitary formation which marched in uniform through Roma neighbourhoods.

And he blamed the Jews, as well as the Roma, for the ills of Hungarian society – until he found out that he himself was one. After several months of hesitation, during which the party leader even considered keeping him as the party’s “tame Jew” as a riposte to accusations of anti-Semitism, he walked out.

Not a man to do things in half-measures, he has now become an Orthodox Jew, has visited Israel, and the concentration camp at Auschwitz which his own grandmother survived.•

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Your new robot coworkers are darling–and so efficient! They’ll relieve you of so many responsibilities. And, eventually, maybe all of them. For now, factory robots will reduce jobs only somewhat, as we work alongside them. But eventually the band will be broken up, the machines going solo. Even the workers manufacturing the robots will soon enough be robots.

In a Technology Review article, Tom Simonite takes a smart look at this transitional phase, as robots begin to gradually commandeer the warehouse. He focuses on Fetch, a company that makes robots versatile enough to be introduced into preexisting factories. An excerpt:

Freight is designed to help shelf pickers, who walk around warehouses pulling items off shelves to do things like fulfilling online shopping orders. As workers walk around gathering items from shelves, they can toss items into the crate carried by the robot. When an order is complete, a tap on a smartphone commands the robot to scoot its load off to its next destination.

Wise says that robot colleagues like these could make work easier for shelf pickers, who walk as much as 15 miles a day in some large warehouses. Turnover in such jobs is high, and warehouse operators struggle to fill positions, she says. “We can reduce that burden on people and have them focus on the things that humans are good at, like taking things off shelves,” says Wise.

However, Wise’s company is also working on a second robot designed to be good at that, too. It has a long, jointed arm with a gripper, is mounted on top of a wheeled base, and has a moving “head” with a depth camera similar to that found in the Kinect games controller. This robot, named Fetch, is intended to rove around a particular area of shelving, taking items down and dropping them into a crate carried by a Freight robot.

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It would cost less to offer guaranteed paid work to unemployed Americans than to finance a social safety net, but there’s really no movement on either side of the aisle in Washington to aid the long-time unemployed, those left behind by the 2008 financial collapse and the growth of robotics. The problem has just been permitted to percolate.

In a Financial Times piece, Martin Wolf looks at two new titles about the haves and have-nots, Inequality: What Can be Done? by Anthony Atkinson and The Globalization of Inequality by François Bourguignon. Interesting that the acceleration of inequality is most marked in the U.S. and U.K. and has not been shared by all other industrialized nations. France, in fact, has seen disparity decrease during the same timeframe. An excerpt: 

Both authors agree that something should be done about inequality. Atkinson provides a number of arguments for concern over rising inequality within rich countries. Some argue, for example, that only equality of opportunity matters. To this he responds that successful personal outcomes are often merely a matter of luck, that the structure of rewards is often grossly unfair and that, with sufficient inequality of outcome, equality of opportunity must be mirage.

Beyond this, argues Atkinson, unequal societies do not function well. The need to protect personal security or to incarcerate ever more people is likely to become a drag on economic performance and inimical to civilised life. If inequality becomes extreme, many will be unable to participate fully in their society. In any case, argues Atkinson, a pound in the hands of someone living on £10,000 a year must be worth more than it is to someone living on £1m. This does not justify complete equality, since the attempt to achieve it will impose costs. But it does mean that high inequality needs to be justified.

Atkinson goes far further, offering a programme of radical reform for the UK. It is not merely radical, but precise and (to the extent such a programme can be) costed. It starts from the argument that rising inequality “is not solely the product of forces outside our control. There are steps that can be taken by governments, acting individually or collectively, by firms, by trade union and consumer organisations, and by us as individuals to reduce the present levels of inequality.”What about policy? At the global level, both authors recommend improved and more generous aid. Bourguignon adds that properly managed trade has much to offer developing countries. Within countries, both authors call for higher taxes on wealth and incomes, and for better regulation, particularly of finance. Also important, they agree, will be policies directly addressed at improving educational outcomes for the disadvantaged.

Thus policy makers should develop a national pay policy, including a statutory minimum wage set at the “living wage,” and should also offer guaranteed public employment at that rate.•

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Goods and food made, served and delivered by humans will some day (and soon) be an artisanal and specialized field, the same way some still buy handmade shoes at a great expense, but most of us hop around on the machine-manufactured kind. That’s right, the wealthy will say, an actual lady’s hands touched my carrots! How smart!

Seriously, almost all of us are eventually being replaced at work by robots, with almost every task that can be automated being automated, and there’s no economic plan in place to deal with that onrushing reality. How do we reconcile a free-market economy with a highly automated one? Of course, I’m just talking about Weak AI. What happens if something stronger comes along, which will likely occur if we go on long enough? As the song says, we’ll make great pets. From recent Steve Wozniak comments reported by Brian Steele at MassLive:

“I love technology, to try it out myself,” said Wozniak. “I’ve got at least 5 iPhones. … I have some Android phones.”

He imagined a world in which these kinds of devices would be able to teach our children for us.

“A lot of our schools slow students down,” he said. “We put computers in schools and the kids don’t come out thinking any better.”

Rather than just putting more gadgets and gizmos in the classroom, he said, each classroom needs to have fewer students, and kids who are further ahead than their peers should be nurtured, not forced to fall in line.

Dismissing the concern over giving artificial intelligence too much intelligence, he said that’s already happened.

“The machines won 200 years ago. We made them too important,” said Wozniak. “That makes us the family pet.”•

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