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We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sure, but what if we tell the wrong ones?

Yes, there’s always been a strain of madness in American society—in pretty much every society—but the sideshow was moved from the margins to the center ring in recent decades. The zealots, cranks and crooks have become the norm, or at least enough of the norm to tip the balance. Not that our country wasn’t sick before the Internet decentralized media. Donald Trump’s rise, which began before Reality TV and Russian bots, perfectly traces our descent into system-crushing corruption. Now numerous erstwhile pillars of our nation topple and probably will fall. That will be messy, but it’s actually the best-case scenario: It’s still possible the fraudulent may consume whatever justice remains.

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In a Times Literary Supplement Q&A, fiction writer M. John Harrison argues that narratives, which are fast gaining a horrible reputation, will be extinct in a quarter of a century:

Question:

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

M. John Harrison:

Smaller. A generation will have grown up repelled by the urge to fantasy that lies behind fake news, corporate branding, political misdirection, sports reporting before the event, the constant fictionalization of everything. “Story” will be a dirty word, even at the BBC and in science journalism. Realism will have set in a long way upstream of the idea of fiction itself and people will be consuming their own lives, as lived, rather than images of life designed to persuade them of something. As part of the arms race between consumer and producer, they’ll have grown out of the idea that one kind of make-believe can be an antidote to another, and be trying to reduce their vulnerability to all of this stuff. A utopian picture, certainly: but utopianism and its ironical sister are traditional features of my field.

I’m sure that’s not so, nor do I think it should be. Democracy was a pretty good narrative and so was the Civil Rights Movement. Stories will always be with us, from the cave drawings of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc until the end of our species, but we better choose them more carefully or that endgame will arrive sooner than we’d like. 

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Pat Graham’s AP piece provides a portrait of a self-taught U.S. rocket scientist who believes the Earth is flat, which is a perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism run amok. The opening:

The countdown to launch creeps closer and there’s still plenty for self-taught rocket scientist “Mad” Mike Hughes to do: Last-second modifications to his vessel. Pick up his flight suit. Leave enough food for his four cats — just in case anything happens.

Hughes is a 61-year-old limo driver who’s spent the last few years building a steam-powered rocket out of salvage parts in his garage. His project has cost him $20,000, which includes Rust-Oleum paint to fancy it up and a motor home he bought on Craigslist that he converted into a ramp.

His first test of the rocket will also be the launch date — Saturday , when he straps into his homemade contraption and attempts to hurtle over the ghost town of Amboy, California. He will travel about a mile at a speed of roughly 500 mph.

“If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot,” Hughes said . “It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive. I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket.

“I’m a walking reality show.”

The daredevil/limo driver has been called a little bit of everything over his career — eccentric, quirky, foolhardy. Doesn’t bother him. He believes what he believes, including that the Earth is flat. He knows this thought is a conundrum, given that he’s about to launch himself into the atmosphere.

Down the road, he’s intending to build a rocket that takes him to space, so he can snap a picture and see with his own eyes.

“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”•

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“We’ll be living in machines next!” exclaimed the headline in a 1935 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which ended up being more correct than the editor who composed it could have known. 

Society in 2017 is well on its way to becoming a quantified surveillance machine, our brains glued to our phones and consciousnesses stored in the cloud, but eight decades ago, the newspaper used the line to tout the pre-fab, fully furnished wonder known as the American Motohome, a modernist abode that could be built in six days. It was all very high-tech at the time, aimed at providing comfort and diminishing toil, delivered replete with built-in air “refrigeration,” heating, electric refrigerator, and a radio, with rooms that were “buttoned” together and could be rearranged as the owners desired. The kitchen was even stocked with food prior to move-in date. The Motohome didn’t, however, have wheels since it wasn’t actually a motor home.

The model’s christening was such a big deal that the Wanamaker department store in Manhattan invited President Roosevelt’s mother to tear the cellophane from the showroom example it constructed inside its auditorium. “I dedicate this home to the women of America,” she said. 

Despite the hoopla, the house was a flop, the Edsel of edifices, as cookie-cutter homes didn’t appeal to American tastes, especially since the future was not cheap with a $5,500 price tag for the larger version, not exactly affordable for most Depression Era families. Even after World War II, when the country’s economy was humming again, pre-fab only found pockets of success in the U.S., while the vanquished in Japan embraced the idea, needing to quickly shelter the survivors of a devastating defeat.•

I wondered yesterday how many members of Edge.org know about Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent continued participation in the ideas think tank, assuming many of them would be uncomfortable about keeping such company. Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker would seemingly not be among the troubled.

The photo above of the two scientists with Epstein was posted in 2014 and appears to be of that vintage. In a 2015 Guardian article, Krauss refused to distance himself from the registered sex offender, feigning ignorance about his patron’s criminal behavior with children:

Well before Epstein went to jail, he saw philanthropy as a way to bring together people from different walks of life in settings ranging from his own mansions to academic conferences, friends said.

“His interest is in interesting people and interesting ideas,” said Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, who directs a program on the origins of life that Epstein has supported. He said he would feel cowardly if he turned away from Epstein because of accusations Krauss knew nothing about.•

Don’t pay as much attention to the bells and whistles as the engines that barely make a hum.

The algorithms and sensors that work quietly and efficiently without pause are a different sort of threat than drones and bombs and humanoid robots that can stick a landing, but give them time and they can do a far more pervasive job. 

Similarly, it’s a good idea to dismiss the public posturing of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as he treks around the country for his American “listening tour,” milking cows and drinking coffee in truck-stop diners the way an actual human might, and focus instead on the company’s attempts to distance itself from the disaster of the 2016 election. Sheryl Sandberg promises Facebook will take responsibility for its failings in the same breath that she asserts that “at our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists.” 

Talk of a Zuckerberg run for the White House in 2020 has been all but silenced since it’s clear he’s not even fully capable of running his virtual kingdom. What seemed like an impenetrable fortress a year ago may now be stormed by regulators eager to do a job that Facebook (and Google and Twitter) either can’t or won’t do.

The opening of Edward Luce’s FT column “The Zuckerberg Delusion“:

Here is what Mark Zuckerberg learned from his 30-state tour of the US: polarisation is rife and the country is suffering from an opioid crisis. Forgive me if I have to lie down for a moment. Yet it would be facile to tease Mr Zuckerberg for his self-evident observations. Some people are geniuses at one thing and bad at others. Mr Zuckerberg is a digital superstar with poor human skills. 

Facebook’s co-founder is not the first Silicon Valley figure to show signs of political inadequacy — nor will he be the last. But he may be the most influential. He personifies the myopia of America’s coastal elites: they wish to do well by doing good. 

When it comes to a choice, the “doing good” bit tends to be forgotten. 

There is nothing wrong with doing well, especially if you are changing the world. Innovators are rightly celebrated. But there is a problem with presenting your prime motive as philanthropic when it is not. Mr Zuckerberg is one of the most successful monetisers of our age. Yet he talks as though he were an Episcopalian pastor. 

“Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” Mr Zuckerberg said this month after Facebook posted its first ever $10bn quarterly earnings result — an almost 50 per cent year-on-year jump. When a leader goes on a “listening tour” it means they are marketing something. In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was herself. In the case of Mr Zuckerberg, it is also himself. Making a surprise announcement that Mr Zuckerberg would be having dinner with an ordinary family is the kind of thing a Soviet dictator would do — down to the phalanx of personal aides he brought with him. 

This is not how scholars find out what ordinary families are thinking. Nor is it a good way to launch a political campaign. 

Ten months after Mr Zuckerberg began his tour, speculation of a presidential bid has been shelved. Say what you like about Donald Trump but he knows how to give the appearance of understanding ordinary people. More to the point, Facebook has turned into a toxic commodity since Mr Trump was elected. Big Tech is the new big tobacco in Washington. It is not a question of whether the regulatory backlash will come, but when and how.•

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Came across “3 Days in the Future,” a 2002 New York Times article about the then-12-year-old TED Conference, and it led me down a very disquieting Google black hole. Jeffrey Epstein, friend of Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Woody Allen, was mentioned in the piece, which isn’t surprising since at that point he was mostly recognized as a billionaire supporter of cutting-edge science. A few years later, the public knew him better than that and much of what was revealed was terrible.

Epstein’s public generosity was at least partially a cover for his evil deeds, as he was investigated beginning in 2005 for sex crimes involving children. He ultimately plead guilty to soliciting underage girls for prostitution and spent 13 months in prison, which seemed like an incredibly fortunate outcome for him and one that didn’t come close to justice. It’s been further reported that he reached settlements with some of his accusers for an amount over $5 million, and in one of these cases he was accused of operating an underage sex-abuse ring. Another of his alleged victims is currently suing in regards to the sex-trafficking.

What I discovered when I did some simple search-engine work is that the Edge Foundation, according to its own site, continues to this day to maintain the registered sex offender as a full member. His Edge bio declares that Epstein enjoys conducting “philanthropy in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” without mentioning what else he’s been accused of conducting there.

Certainly, Edge.org does lots of interesting work in regards to science and technology under founder John Brockman’s editorial guidance, but I wonder how many members of the think tank, lots of them truly good and brilliant people, know about Epstein’s continued participation.

It’s possible that this is an old page that’s simply never been removed from the Internet—and one would hope so—though Epstein’s personal site also lists him as an active member.•

The Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinbach began researching “reactivation,” his term for the process of making the aged young all over again, in the 1890s. He promoted the use of “brain extracts” for all and developed for men a type of vasectomy that would allegedly repurpose semen into an internal youth serum. It was bullocks, but the procedure still helped the doctor gain fame—if not the approval of his medical peers—because people rightfully fear death, a hideous and permanent condition. A 1941 report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at how the 81-year-old, yet seemingly ageless, Steinbach was to go horseback riding on his birthday. What a remarkable specimen he’d turned himself into! He croaked three years later, however, like a mere commoner who’d been unenlightened about the bold ideas of educated men.

Today Alphabet aims to “cure death,” Libertarian putz Peter Thiel has vowed that HGH injections and other high-priced treatments will allow him to live to 140 (god help us all if so) and Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil pursues immortality by downing handfuls of supplements daily and working on a system to upload his brain into computers. Let’s hope for his sake it doesn’t wind up housed in Google Docs

Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel, Zero K, takes on this fervor among the super-rich for an endless tomorrow: “We are born without choosing to be,” a character says. “Should we have to die in the same manner?” Well, we should search for better cures and longer lives, but there’s something creepy about the over-promising and narcissism of contemporary Silicon Valley immortalists who hope to escape societal collapse by fleeing to New Zealand and to outrun the Reaper through a combination of chemistry and computers. They talk about wanting to rescue the world, but they mostly want to save their own asses and stock options. 

In “The History of the Future,” John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the longstanding anti-death movement through Steinbach, Serge Voronoff and other historical crackpots, and interprets more technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

An excerpt about “enlightened” thought:

Many who have been optimistic about the possibilities opened up by technology have wanted to use it for purposes that would now be recognised as highly regressive; some of the most widely influential among these people have been renowned progressive thinkers. When a cult of technology is joined with fashionable ideas of human improvement, the upshot is very often gruesome inhumanity.

Consider eugenics. Writing of the interwar enthusiasm for policies that would “improve the human stock”, Bowler reminds us that exhibitions promoting Nazi eugenics and “racial hygiene” toured the US freely in the Thirties, while many American states enacted legislation for the compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be feeble-minded. For many progressives, eugenics was as quintessentially modern as town planning. Eugenic policies attracted the support of William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and progressive luminaries throughout the world. In Sweden, the architect of the Scandinavian welfare state, Gunnar Myrdal, argued that a programme of mandatory sterilisation was necessary for social progress, with tens of thousands being subjected to the procedure up to the mid-Seventies.

Some in interwar Europe went so far as proposing the compulsory euthanasia of people classified as socially obstructive or useless. Bowler cites the French surgeon Alexis Carrell (1873-1944) as recommending that habitual criminals “should be humanely and economically disposed of in some euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases”. Carrel was attacked for links with the Nazis, but policies of this kind were not confined to Nazis and their sympathisers. Carrell’s views were anticipated by George Bernard Shaw, whose long-time enthusiasm for involuntary euthanasia Bowler does not discuss.

In a speech to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, Shaw declared: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time looking after them.” Here Shaw was not speculating about a hypothetical future society. In his introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s English Prisons Under Local Government (1921), he explicitly advocated large-scale use of the lethal chamber as an alternative to imprisonment. In The Crime of Imprisonment(1946), he reiterated his view of how anti-social elements should be treated: “If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way.”

Shaw’s belief that many human beings were “not fit to live” was a recurring theme among early-20th-century progressive thinkers. As Bowler notes, Wells looked forward to a future in which “The unfit would be painlessly eliminated, the mentally ill encouraged to suicide out of a sense of duty and the inferior races of the world would face extinction.” When in his non-fiction study Anticipations, first published in 1901, he considered the future of the “swarms of black and yellow and brown people who do not come into the needs of efficiency” in a scientifically ordered World State, Wells concluded that these and other “inefficient” human groups would have to disappear: “The world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go”. Here Wells was expressing a view of human progress that he never renounced.•

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A hammer is a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and the more powerful the tool, the more powerful the weapon.

Technology that excels at data-collection and surveillance will be used to those ends in the best of times and will be employed in a harsh, even tyrannical, manner in the worst of times. The competing agendas among individuals, corporations and states almost demand it. I’m not suggesting Digital Leninism is the only possible future in our increasingly algorithmic world, but I do think determinism is embedded to some degree in technology, which can lead as well as follow. And there will be no plugs to pull if things to don’t go as planned, and even if there were, yanking them from the wall would be the end of us as surely as it would our machines. 

Yuval Noah Harari dissents from that view in a recent Guardian review of Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, asserting that technology is what we make it. Even if that is true, take one good look at us and worry. The opening:

Artificial intelligence will probably be the most important agent of change in the 21st century. It will transform our economy, our culture, our politics and even our own bodies and minds in ways most people can hardly imagine. If you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably wrong; but if you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it does not sound like science fiction, it is certainly wrong.

Technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. In the 21st century, AI will open up an even wider spectrum of possibilities. Deciding which of these to realise may well be the most important choice humankind will have to make in the coming decades.

This choice is not a matter of engineering or science. It is a matter of politics. Hence it is not something we can leave to Silicon Valley – it should be among the most important items on our political agenda. Unfortunately, AI has so far hardly registered on our political radar. It has not been a major subject in any election campaign, and most parties, politicians and voters seem to have no opinion about it. This is largely because most people have only a very dim and limited understanding of machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. (Most generally held ideas about AI come from SF movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix.) Without a better understanding of the field, we cannot comprehend the dilemmas we are facing: when science becomes politics, scientific ignorance becomes a recipe for political disaster.

Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 tries to rectify the situation. Written in an accessible and engaging style, and aimed at the general public, the book offers a political and philosophical map of the promises and perils of the AI revolution. Instead of pushing any one agenda or prediction, Tegmark seeks to cover as much ground as possible, reviewing a wide variety of scenarios concerning the impact of AI on the job market, warfare and political  systems.

Life 3.0 does a good job of clarifying basic terms and key debates, and in dispelling common myths. While science fiction has caused many people to worry about evil robots, for instance, Tegmark rightly emphasises that the real problem is with the unforeseen consequences of developing highly competent AI. Artificial intelligence need not be evil and need not be encased in a robotic frame in order to wreak havoc. In Tegmark’s words, “the real risk with artificial general intelligence isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”•

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The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, becomes explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

To be perfectly accurate, Levandowski, the pivotal figure in the current legal scrum between Google and Uber over autonomous-vehicle intellectual property, isn’t prophesying End of Days scenarios but is rather preaching that we are in the process of transitioning from a planet ruled by humans (not great guardians, admittedly) to one governed by what he thinks will be superior machines. If we get on our knees and pray at his church today, he believes, we’ll be more likely to be accepted tomorrow as pets who sit at the feet of our masters.

His techno-theocracy sounds even less inviting than the religion promoted by the computer-savvy, self-described messiah Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru from India who briefly came to prominence in America during the disco-addled decade of the 1970s. From a 1974 profile of him by Marjoe Gortner:

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of “modular units adaptable to any desired shape.” The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•

Following up on his recent WTF Wired feature about Levandowski, Mark Harris offers a further interview with the Silicon Valley spiritualist, who, like many in the Singularity industry, worships at the altar of “intelligence,” a term that’s far more slippery to define than many in the sector are willing to admit. The algorithmic abbot believes unimaginable machine intelligence must equate to God. “If there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” Well, perhaps the devil?

An excerpt:

Levandowski has been working with computers, robots, and AI for decades. He started with robotic Lego kits at the University of California at Berkeley, went on to build a self-driving motorbike for a DARPA competition, and then worked on autonomous cars, trucks, and taxis for Google, Otto, and Uber. As time went on, he saw software tools built with machine learning techniques surpassing less sophisticated systems—and sometimes even humans.

“Seeing tools that performed better than experts in a variety of fields was a trigger [for me],” he says. “That progress is happening because there’s an economic advantage to having machines work for you and solve problems for you. If you could make something one percent smarter than a human, your artificial attorney or accountant would be better than all the attorneys or accountants out there. You would be the richest person in the world. People are chasing that.”

Not only is there a financial incentive to develop increasingly powerful AIs, he believes, but science is also on their side. Though human brains have biological limitations to their size and the amount of energy they can devote to thinking, AI systems can scale arbitrarily, housed in massive data centers and powered by solar and wind farms. Eventually, some people think that computers could become better and faster at planning and solving problems than the humans who built them, with implications we can’t even imagine today—a scenario that is usually called the Singularity.

Levandowski prefers a softer word: the Transition. “Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules,” he tells me. “In the future, if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge. What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the ‘whatever’ knows who helped it get along.”

With the internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cell phones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, the ‘whatever’ will hear everything, see everything, and be everywhere at all times. The only rational word to describe that ‘whatever’, thinks Levandowski, is ‘god’—and the only way to influence a deity is through prayer and worship.

“Part of it being smarter than us means it will decide how it evolves, but at least we can decide how we act around it,” he says. “I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, ‘Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’”

Levandowski expects that a super-intelligence would do a better job of looking after the planet than humans are doing, and that it would favor individuals who had facilitated its path to power. Although he cautions against taking the analogy too far, Levandowski sees a hint of how a superhuman intelligence might treat humanity in our current relationships with animals. “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he asks. “We give pets medical attention, food, grooming, and entertainment. But an animal that’s biting you, attacking you, barking and being annoying? I don’t want to go there.” 

Enter Way of the Future. The church’s role is to smooth the inevitable ascension of our machine deity, both technologically and culturally. In its bylaws, WOTF states that it will undertake programs of research, including the study of how machines perceive their environment and exhibit cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.

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Considering the best-case scenario of how many days I might possibly have left in my life and how many books I want to read—not even counting the ones yet to be published that will lengthen that list—there’s no doubt I’ll fall well short of crossing off every title. That could be viewed as a blessing: At least I’ll never run out of reading material. It’s also a curse. What if there was another way?

In Cathy O’Neil’s concerned Bloomberg View opinion piece “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?” the editorialist pivots off of a podcast discussion between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ray Kurzweil, two guys who just won’t give it a rest. The excerpt:

‎Ray Kurzweil:

Computers are getting smaller and smaller. We’ll have nano-robots the size of blood cells that have computers in them. They’ll go into the brain through the capillaries and communicate with our neurons. We already know how to do that. People with Parkinson’s disease already have computer connections into their brain. My view is that we’re going to become a hybrid, partly biological, partly non-biological. However, the non-biological part is subject to what I call the Law of Accelerating Returns. It’s going to expand exponentially. The cloud is expanding exponentially. It’s getting about twice as powerful every year. Our biological thinking is relatively fixed. I mean, there’ve been a few genetic changes in the last few thousand years, but for the most part it hasn’t changed much, and it’s not going to expand because we have this fixed skull that constrains it and it actually runs on a very slow substrate that’s a million times slower than electronic circuits.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Then why invoke the brain-machine connection at that point? You’ve got the machine.

Ray Kurzweil:

Because it’s a much faster interface. Our fingers are very slow.

‎Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The world is going too slow for you. You want to speed it up.

Ray Kurzweil:

I mean, it is. How long does it take you to read The Brothers Karamozov? It takes months.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

So you’re suggesting that you can get these nanobots the size of your neurosynapses and one that will be pre-loaded with War and Peace and will somehow inject it into your neurosynaptic memory banks and then you’re done, you’ve got it. Just like in the Matrix, they would load memory programs into you.

Ray Kurzweil:

We will connect into neocortical hierarchies in the cloud. Some of that could have preloaded knowledge.•

A couple things: 1) Even if your lips move, it should not take months to read the Brothers Karamozov. 2) Feel free to toss Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” onto a pile of e-waste, as he’s often wildly optimistic in these matters.

That means we likely won’t be the ones making decisions about this brave new world, if humans get to make them at all. I assume Kurzweil means the result of volumes being uploaded into our descendants’ wetware would be different than if they were fed into a computer, that these future people wouldn’t just absorb this information as data but would be capable of analysis and criticism as if they’d actually sat and read them.

It would be akin to swallowing a pill dinner instead of eating food. Of course, that way of taking nourishment would cause jaws, mouths, teeth, throats and stomachs to change, likely for the worst. You’d have to think parts of our brains might go slack if we were plugging them into a library, painlessly absorbing shelves at a time. 

When futurists talk about carbon-silicon hybrids as necessary to evolve and save the species, they’re actually talking about perpetuating some form of life, more than specifically “human life.”

From O’Neil:

What if humans could upload all the great classics of literature to their brains, without having to go through the arduous process of reading? Wonderful and leveling as that may seem, it’s a prospect that I’m not sure we should readily embrace.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk. Kurzweil described (starting at 10:30) how our brains might someday interface directly with non-biological forms of intelligence, possibly with the help of nano-bots that travel through our capillaries.
 
Given how much faster this interface would be than regular reading, he went on, we’d be able to consume novels like “The Brothers Karamazov” in moments, rather than the current rather clumsy form of ingestion known as reading, which, he said, “could take months.”
 
At this point Tyson interjected: Are you saying we could just upload War and Peace? Yes, Kurzweil answered: “We will connect to neocortical hierarchies in cloud with pre-loaded knowledge.”

This snippet of conversation has baffled and fascinated me ever since.•

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Sad to hear the news that onetime gossip powerhouse Liz Smith passed away. Can’t say that her focus on celebrity made our society better, and in some ways she helped enable a corrupt system that needed to be torn down rather than propped up, but the water she swam in was always more shallow than dirty. The following is a repost of an entry about her from last summer.

Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter anymore than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.

No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him–and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife—the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much—though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. Now, at 94, she wonders where it all went.

In one sense, Smith is like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she has embedded in her the slings and arrows of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.

· · · 

From John Leland’s excellent NYT feature “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice“:

So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to someone else to make sure the public gets sick.

Facebook, maybe?

“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” Ms. Smith said in the apartment where she moved after her stroke in January, from her longtime digs above a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murray Hill. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and bright orange lipstick.

“It used to mean — bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”

Which put Ms. Smith at an existential crossroads: If a gossip columnist dishes in the forest and no one repeats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity landscape that considers contestants on “The Bachelorette” to be celebrities, how does a star-chaser regain her star?

“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.

“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”•

Citizens with their suspect UFO “sightings” have given the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a bad name in America as assuredly as Timothy Leary made the potential medical benefits of LSD long unspeakable. But considering how much is out there—including stars like our sun and planets like our own—the odds are that we’re not alone.

· · ·

China is set up to hear first if extraterrestrials make contact with humans any time in the foreseeable future, since that nation has invested most heavily in the technology necessary to enable such a meeting of the minds. Does it matter if a totalitarian regime is at the head of the line to greet the otherworldly? (That’s supposing, of course, that China remains autocratic.) Probably not, considering the Earth-shaking enormity of the event, one that would likely render any political designations meaningless. Of course, some probably felt the same about the original Space Race, and that didn’t turn out to be true, with numerous practical advantages subsequently enjoyed by America. But the realization of a close encounter with alien life would dwarf even boots on the moon.

· · ·

Its realization of a village-clearing SETI telescope makes clear, however, that China is committed to science as America has taken a sharp turn from it, at least at our highest levels of government. If the autocratic state surpasses the U.S. and the rest of the planet in not only alien detection but also in solar panels, supercomputers, physics, etc., China would possess a soft power to go along with superior hardware, which would have a profound effect on world order. China’s dominance isn’t fait accompli, of course, as its poisonous dictatorial politics is a serious impediment to scientific growth. The valuable messiness of democracy may ultimately be a natural outgrowth of its continued development.

· · ·

In Ross Andersen’s wonderfully written Atlantic account of his trek to China’s premier SETI setup, which looks like a caved-in Apple campus dotted with oil rigs and is the “the world’s most sensitive telescope,” the author visits with novelist Liu Cixin and revisits the populous state’s scientific history. An excerpt:

week later, I rode a bullet train out of Shanghai, leaving behind its purple Blade Runner glow, its hip cafés and craft-beer bars. Rocketing along an elevated track, I watched high-rises blur by, each a tiny honeycomb piece of the rail-linked urban megastructure that has recently erupted out of China’s landscape. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century. The country has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea.

The skyscrapers and cranes dwindled as the train moved farther inland. Out in the emerald rice fields, among the low-hanging mists, it was easy to imagine ancient China—the China whose written language was adopted across much of Asia; the China that introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; the China that built the river-taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills. Those hills grew steeper as we went west, stair-stepping higher and higher, until I had to lean up against the window to see their peaks. Every so often, a Hans Zimmer bass note would sound, and the glass pane would fill up with the smooth, spaceship-white side of another train, whooshing by in the opposite direction at almost 200 miles an hour.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is often derided as a kind of religious mysticism, even within the scientific community. Nearly a quarter century ago, the United States Congress defunded America’s seti program with a budget amendment proposed by Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, who said he hoped it would “be the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.” That’s one reason it is China, and not the United States, that has built the first world-class radio observatory with SETI as a core scientific goal.

It was mid-afternoon when we glided into a sparkling, cavernous terminal in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest, most remote provinces. A government-imposed social transformation appeared to be under way. Signs implored people not to spit indoors. Loudspeakers nagged passengers to “keep an atmosphere of good manners.” When an older man cut in the cab line, a security guard dressed him down in front of a crowd of hundreds.The next morning, I went down to my hotel lobby to meet the driver I’d hired to take me to the observatory. Two hours into what was supposed to be a four-hour drive, he pulled over in the rain and waded 30 yards into a field where an older woman was harvesting rice, to ask for directions to a radio observatory more than 100 miles away. After much frustrated gesturing by both parties, she pointed the way with her scythe.

We set off again, making our way through a string of small villages, beep-beeping motorbike riders and pedestrians out of our way. Some of the buildings along the road were centuries old, with upturned eaves; others were freshly built, their residents having been relocated by the state to clear ground for the new observatory. A group of the displaced villagers had complained about their new housing, attracting bad press—a rarity for a government project in China. Western reporters took notice. “China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Hunt for Extraterrestrials,” read a headline in The New York Times.

SETI does share some traits with religion.•

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Timothy Leary had numerous odd experiences behind prison walls. There was the time he dropped acid with Massachusetts inmates, the one in which he shared a Folsom cell block with Charles Manson and let us never forget that he was lectured in the pen by friend Marshall McLuhan. Such was the life of an LSD salesman.

One of the few trips Leary never got to take, except posthumously, was a trek to outer space. In 1976, during his “comeback tour” after stays in 29 jails and a retirement of sorts, Leary dreamed of leaving it all behind—way behind. The opening of John Riley’s People article “Timothy Leary Is Free, Demonstrably in Love and Making Extraterrestrial Plans“:

High in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in a wood-heated A-frame beside a rushing stream, the retired guru speaks:

“After six years of silence, we have three new ideas which we think are fairly good. One is space migration. Another is intelligence increase. The third is life extension. We use the acronym SMI2LE to bring them together.”

The sage is Timothy Leary, high priest of the 1960s LSD movement, who is just four weeks out of the 29th jail he has inhabited since his first arrest in Laredo, Texas, 11 years ago. That charge was possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana that his then-wife, Rosemarie, had handed to his daughter. In recent months, when Leary was appearing before federal grand juries investigating the Weather Underground, he was moved from prison to prison for his own safety. Now paroled at age 56, he will soon start a term of probation whose length will be set by a federal judge.

Leary fled a federal work camp in California in 1970, an escape planned by Rosemarie and the Weather Underground. The Learys went first to Africa, then to Switzerland, where their marriage collapsed. Leary met and was captivated by a then 26-year-old jet-setter, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, whom he married in 1972. Three weeks later they traveled to Afghanistan, where U.S. authorities captured them both and flew them back to Los Angeles.

“Joanna visited me regularly,” Leary says. “She published several of my books and lobbied and schemed to get me free.” He looks at her adoringly, and she turns from the breakfast dishes in the sink to kiss him. Joanna tells how she collared Betty Ford on a street in San Diego and pleaded with her for Tim’s freedom. “I’m doing for my husband what you’re doing for yours. You’re helping yours get elected President, and I’m helping mine get out of prison.”

“One of the plans that she was continually hatching to break me out,” says Leary, “was for her to descend onto the Vacaville prison grounds in a silver helicopter blaring Pink Floyd music, wearing nothing but a machine gun. We called it Plan No. 346.”

“You know,” he continues, after Joanna has left to drive to a village 10 miles away for groceries and cigarettes, “in 1970 the U.S. government directly and bluntly shut me up. It was the greatest thing that could have happened, because I had run out of ideas.” His face, its prison pallor turned to brown by the mountain sun, breaks into a grin. A woodpecker hammers at the chimney of their Franklin stove. “Does that every morning,” says Leary. “We’ve named him the tinpecker.

“Well, SMI2LE, as I said, is a good idea. The acronym is woven into Joanna’s belts and purses. The space migration part is what I’m working on right now. Los Alamos [the atomic laboratory] is not far away and I have lots of questions about laser fusion. And this valley is an ideal temporary planetary base of operations for getting away from earth.”

Leary not only wants to live on a space station between the earth and the moon, he wants to take some of the planet with him. “How far can we see from here?” he asks. “Half a mile? According to a professor at Princeton, such an area could be compressed to a degree that I figure could be fit within a NASA spacecraft.”•

It’s certainly possible with current technology to automate many McJobs, including ones at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, but robotization is slowed when cheap human labor makes the price point for transition too dear. That’s the argument used by those trying to suppress worker wages, keeping them so low that FT employees often need to be subsidized by federal-assistance programs. There has to be a better way than a choice between sub-subsistence wages and technological unemployment, and it’s likely a political solution.

People who serve up sentences are becoming as prone to this phenomenon as those who sling hash, with prose on paper and screen alike unsupported by the new advertising reality. The print ad was always an inexact science, but it was a bubble that took a century to burst. We’ve yet to find a formula that will support 21st-century written media for even a day.

Complicating matters even further is the sleepless army of amateur scribes churning out endless copy for Facebook and other social-media giants. I’ve said it before, but Mark Zuckerberg’s media-swallowing behemoth would be by far the biggest sweatshop in the history of the world, except that even those grimy outfits pay at least a pittance. Perhaps much of newswriting could theoretically soon be automated, but who needs the machines when we have the “wisdom” of the crowds? The fans have rushed the stage and taken over the show.

Eventually, I assume we’ll have largely a hybrid of human drones sending out paragraphs of varying length and quality, with computers supplementing the output. Some privileged people will remain tapping on keyboards to do high-level work for a salary, but their numbers will be puny. Let’s face it: The privileged have always been few, but their ranks will be significantly thinned.

From Zam EIC Laura Michet’s Twitter feed:

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It’s not nearly the most enormous or important outrage, but the way these Pepe the Frog pigs and Russian trolls have used nihilism to advance their racist and autocratic agenda is maddening. Nihilism isn’t good as an operating system, but it can be a bug that disrupts the machine, making us realize that we’re actually not entirely inside of it, that other options are possible. It’s a philosophical doctrine that’s very effective in combating a society that’s become as numb and monotonous as the face of a clock, especially one that’s been given over almost entirely to consumerism. From Jules Feiffer’s 1967 play, Little Murders:

ALFRED
(photographer):

So I began to do a lot of catalogue work. Pictures of medical instruments, things like that. There was—well, the best way to describe it—a seductiveness I was able to draw out of inanimate things that other photographers didn’t seem to be able to get. I suppose the real break came with the I.B.M. show. They had me shoot thirty of their new models. They hired a gallery and had a computer show. One hundred and twenty color pictures of computers. It got some very strange notices, the upshot of which was that the advertising business went “thing” crazy, and I became commercial again.

MARJORIE
(prospective mother-in-law):

You must be extremely talented.

ALFRED:

I got sick of it! Where the hell are the standards? That’s what I kept asking myself. Those people will take anything! Hell, if I gave them a picture of shit they’d give me an award for it!

MARJORIE:

Language, young man!

ALFRED:

Mm? So that’s what I do now.

CAROL
(prospective father-in-law):

What?

ALFRED:

Take pictures of shit.

MARJORIE:

Language! Language! This is my table!

ALFRED:

I don’t mean to offend you, Mrs. Newquist. I’ve been shooting shit for a year now, and I’ve already won a half-dozen awards.

MARJORIE:

Awards?

ALFRED:

And Harper’s Bazaar wants me to do its spring issue.

MARJORIE:

That’s a very respectable publication. It all sounds very impressive.•

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Ten years ago, in the speculative New York Review of Books essay “Our Biotech Future,” Freeman Dyson imagined a time when lifeforms, not just startups, might be hatched in garages, when reptile breeders could fashion designer lizards and children could create their own playthings. He believed the genetic future was fast, cheap and perhaps out of control. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” he acknowledged. An excerpt:

I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.•

That biotech future is arriving in a hurry now, even if it’s only in the larval stage, not yet thoroughly decentralized, a development, should it be realized, that will present tremendous promise and peril, perhaps saving the species or assailing it with existential threats. Most likely is both those outcomes materialize in simultaneity. These first baby steps unsurprisingly involve CRISPR. In Annie Sneed’s Scientific American piece “Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA,” the author finds that the risks and rewards of DIY biology are currently small—but we’re only at the beginning.

The opening:

“We aren’t going to get sick, are we?” my roommate Brett asked me. He cringed as I knelt down and stuffed a plate of E. coli bacteria—which came as part of the DIY CRISPR–Cas9 kit I bought online—into our fridge next to cartons of eggs, strawberry jam, bottles of beer and a block of cheese.

“No, we won’t. The label says ‘non-pathogenic,’” I replied, trying to sound assuring. But honestly, I had no clue what I was doing. I nudged all the food up against the fridge wall, and left a two-inch border around the plate of living cells—a no man’s land between the microbes and our dinner. A couple inches probably would not stop the bugs, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

CRISPR–Cas9 (or CRISPR, for short) has given scientists a powerful way to make precise changes to DNA—in microbes, plants, mice, dogs and even in human cells. The technique may help researchers engineer drought-resistance crops, develop better drugs, cure genetic disorders, eradicate infectious diseases and much more. Ask any biologist, and they’ll likely tell you that CRISPR is revolutionary. It’s cheap and effective, and in many cases, it works much better than older methods for making genetic modifications. Biologists will also tell you that CRISPR is very easy to use. But what does “easy to use” mean?

I am not a DIY scientist, much less a professional scientist. You won’t find me swabbing my cheek cells for DNA or tinkering with yeast in a lab on the weekend. But I wondered: Is CRISPR so easy that even amateurs like me can make meaningful contributions to science? And also, does this new technique make gene editing so accessible that we need to worry about DIY scientists cooking up pandemic viruses in their basements? If you Google ‘DIY CRISPR,’ stories such as “What Happens If Someone Uses this DIY Gene Hacking Kit to Make Mutant Bacteria?” pop up.

I attempted to find answers to all these questions myself, starting with the plate of bacteria in the kitchen of my San Francisco apartment.•

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Several of America’s most prominent institutions are simultaneously collapsing before our eyes. That’s likely mostly for the good, ultimately.

The gravest danger is in Washington, of course, where a Manchurian Russian candidate made his way to the White House with a Putin push and is sick enough to be willing to destroy democracy to save himself. A complicit, corrupt Republican Congress seems intent on allowing the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to do just that. Only Robert Mueller’s team and tens of millions of citizens can prevent such an outcome. One way or another, the whole thing is coming down and Trump will be covered in disgrace. The shape the rest of us will be in is TBD.

After Weinstein, Hollywood is also on the chopping block, with a century-old studio like Warner Brothers potentially facing an ignominious death thanks to the perpetually predatory behavior of Brett Ratner. Weinstein, Ratner, Toback and Spacey are almost definitely only the first names on the list, with the film and music business scandals just beginning. There are numerous movie and record company execs and stars on Ratner’s professional level (or higher) who’ve long been rumored to have behaved as badly or far worse. As it concerns the children in show biz, all it would take is one former tween performer to name A-list names to cause an earthquake. And these outrages have a chance to reverberate far beyond entertainment circles, ensnaring any number of politicians and financiers who move in these moneyed circles.

Silicon Valley isn’t vanishing anytime soon, but it’s clear now the industry is either too inept or too unwilling to enact a course correction in the wake of Kremlin interference in our election. Furthermore, the community is betting a big part of its future on a surveillance capitalism that has already become part of the firmament but is only in the foundational stage. Oversight is desperately needed, and for the first time it seems like it may come to fruition.

The media is also faltering, but some of the reasons are troubling. It’s great to see Ailes, O’Reilly, Halperin, Wieseltier and other shitty media men get their comeuppance, but the seismic shift from print to the Internet is still an existential threat. Let’s remember that it wasn’t tweets or likes that began the cascading Harvey Effect but rather two pieces of exorbitantly expensive journalism produced by the New York Times and the New Yorker, a pair of the country’s legacy reporting companies. There is no cheap substitute in a healthy democracy for this kind of work, though that’s what we’re being offered more and more.

Wall Street so far has remained unscathed by the tottering of these other sectors, which I guess is fitting, seeing how uncoupled it’s become from Main Street. There’s no guarantee, however, that this raft of scandals won’t also cause it to crater.

Janice Min is correct, I think, when she says Weinstein finally being defenestrated from the penthouse is the result of a serial sexual predator like Donald Trump and his anti-woman agenda landing in the Oval Office. While that may have been the original impetus, the landslide has now taken on a life of its own. Much of this was long overdue, but there will be collateral damage. Let’s hope liberal governance is not among the casualties.

From Stella Bugbee’s latest Editor’s Letter at “The Cut“:

I want to feel less furious. Less unsettled. I want to write a novel about an ordinary man in a mid-level position of power who knew he had abused women and was waiting to be outed. I want to capture the twilight of uncertain fear, the swirling cesspool of anger and panic he must be swimming in for the first time and the denial necessary for him to have carried on with his life all along.

I want to understand what men know about WANTING. Because men know about wanting. Men have been told for their whole lives that to be a man means to take and do what they want. I retain so few specifics from what I read in high school, but for some reason I have never forgotten this bit from Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King:

“Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, ‘What do you want?’ But this is all it would ever tell me.”

That voice told Mark Halperin to rub his boner on unsuspecting female assistants. It told Harvey Weinstein to jerk off into a potted plant, among other things. And Bellow told me what I was already beginning to understand: Men want what they want, and that wanting is more powerful than what I want. And the crazy thing is how much I liked that book, even identified with Henderson — bored in my high-school classroom, sitting with all my unexpressed wants.

I want. I want. I want. All I want right now is to be around other women that make me laugh, like Aidy Bryant, the Cut’s November cover woman. I want to root out more stories and listen intently. I want to talk ad nauseum with Rebecca Traister about shitty men and how we deal with them.

The other day Traister told me, “This is some renegade ’70s-era feminist shit going on — I’ve never lived through anything like it.” I want to revel in this moment, even as I am scared and uncertain where it will lead us.•

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Currently, Artificial Intelligence is either depressingly limited or on the cusp of taking all our jobs and becoming superintelligent. It depends on who you ask. 

No one really knows the answers to these questions, not completely. Garry Kasparov doesn’t fret much about AI because he believes that outside of “closed systems,” like chess, humans are far better at navigating the world. Perhaps. But what of another board game like Go, which is technically a closed system but far more complex, almost infinitely so? Humans have been crushed far ahead of schedule in this pastime, so much so that its strategies are incomprehensible to even the world’s best carbon-based players. Is society, ultimately, more like chess or Go? I would say the latter.

The truth about AI lies somewhere in between—or at one of the poles. Time will tell.

Two excerpts follow.

_____________________________

In “The AI That Has Nothing To Learn From Humans,” Dawn Chen’s excellent Atlantic piece, the author examines the almost otherwordly performance of Alpha Go Zero, which plays the game with an inscrutability so pronounced that trying to divine its motivations is akin to attempting to understanding the thinking of an octopus. An excerpt:

Since May, experts have been painstakingly analyzing the 55 machine-versus-machine games. And their descriptions of AlphaGo’s moves often seem to keep circling back to the same several words: Amazing. Strange. Alien.

“They’re how I imagine games from far in the future,” Shi Yue, a top Go player from China, has told the press. A Go enthusiast named Jonathan Hop who’s been reviewing the games on YouTube calls the AlphaGo-versus-AlphaGo face-offs “Go from an alternate dimension.” From all accounts, one gets the sense that an alien civilization has dropped a cryptic guidebook in our midst: a manual that’s brilliant—or at least, the parts of it we can understand.

Will Lockhart, a physics grad student and avid Go player who codirected The Surrounding Game (a documentary about the pastime’s history and devotees) tried to describe the difference between watching AlphaGo’s games against top human players, on the one hand, and its self-paired games, on the other. (I interviewed Will’s Go-playing brother Ben about Asia’s intensive Go schools in 2016.) According to Will, AlphaGo’s moves against Ke Jie made it seem to be “inevitably marching toward victory,” while Ke seemed to be “punching a brick wall.” Any time the Chinese player had perhaps found a way forward, said Lockhart, “10 moves later AlphaGo had resolved it in such a simple way, and it was like, ‘Poof, well that didn’t lead anywhere!’”

By contrast, AlphaGo’s self-paired games might have seemed more frenetic. More complex. Lockhart compares them to “people sword-fighting on a tightrope.”

Expert players are also noticing AlphaGo’s idiosyncrasies. Lockhart and others mention that it almost fights various battles simultaneously, adopting an approach that might seem a bit madcap to human players, who’d probably spend more energy focusing on smaller areas of the board at a time. According to Michael Redmond, the highest-ranked Go player from the Western world (he relocated to Japan at the age of 14 to study Go), humans have accumulated knowledge that might tend to be more useful on the sides and corners of the board. AlphaGo “has less of that bias,” he noted, “so it can make impressive moves in the center that are harder for us to grasp.”

Also, it’s been making unorthodox opening moves. Some of those gambits, just two years ago, might have seemed ill-conceived to experts. But now pro players are copying certain of these unfamiliar tactics in tournaments, even if no one fully understands how certain of these tactics lead to victory. For example, people have noticed that some versions of AlphaGo seem to like playing what’s called a three-three invasion on a star point, and they’re experimenting with that move in tournaments now too. No one’s seeing these experiments lead to clearly consistent victories yet, maybe because human players don’t understand how best to follow through.

Some moves AlphaGo likes to make against its clone are downright incomprehensible, even to the world’s best players.•

_____________________________

In “The Human Strategy,” Sandy Pentland’s piece at Edge, the Artificial Intelligence pioneer writes that “current AI machine-learning things are just dead simple stupid.” Perhaps, but that will change, and as a means of creating a less dystopic path forward, Pentland believes humans can be informed about our own systems by studying our silicon counterparts. He also thinks we can tame AI to a good degree by keeping a “human in the loop,” which is either hopeful about the future of our species or ignorant about our past. Even if we can chasten machines, society will only be as good as the humans who inhabit it. That’s as much a risk as a guarantee, especially since the tools at our disposal will be far more powerful.

An excerpt:

On Polarization and Inequality

Today, we have incredible polarization and segregation by income almost everywhere in the world, and that threatens to tear governments and civil society apart. We have increasing population, which is part of the root of all those things. Increasingly, the media are failing us, and the downfall of media is causing people to lose their bearings. They don’t know what to believe. It makes it easy for people to be manipulated. There is a real need to put a grounding under all of our cultures of things that we all agree on, and to be able to know which things are working and which things aren’t.

We’ve now converted to a digital society, and have lost touch with the notions of truth and justice. Justice used to be mostly informal and normative. We’ve now made it very formal. At the same time, we’ve put it out of the reach of most people. Our legal systems are failing us in a way that they didn’t before precisely because they’re now more formal, more digital, less embedded in society.

Ideas about justice are very different around the world. People have very different values. One of the core differentiators is, do you remember when the bad guys came with guns and killed everybody? If you do, your attitude about justice is different than the average Edge reader. Were you born into the upper classes? Or were you somebody who saw the sewers from the inside?

A common test I have for people that I run into is this: Do you know anybody who owns a pickup truck? It’s the number-one selling vehicle in America, and if you don’t know people like that, that tells me you are out of touch with more than fifty percent of America. Segregation is what we’re talking about here, physical segregation that drives conceptual segregation. Most of America thinks of justice, and access, and fairness as being very different than the typical, say, Manhattanite.

If you look at patterns of mobility—where people go—in a typical city, you find that the people in the top quintile—white-collar working families—and the bottom quintile—people who are sometimes on unemployment or welfare—never see each other. They don’t go to the same places; they don’t talk about the same things; they see the world very differently. It’s amazing. They all live in the same city, nominally, but it’s as if it were two completely different worlds. That really bothers me.

On Extreme Wealth

Today’s ultra-wealthy, at this point, fifty percent of them have promised to give away more than fifty percent of their wealth, creating a plurality of different voices in the foundation space. Gates is probably the most familiar example. He’s decided that if the government won’t do it, he’ll do it. You want mosquito nets? He’ll do it. You want antivirals? He’ll do it. We’re getting different stakeholders taking action, in the form of foundations that are dedicated to public good. But they have different versions of public good, which is good. A lot of the things that are wonderful about the world today come from actors outside government like the Ford Foundation or the Sloan Foundation, where the things they bet on are things that nobody else would bet on, and they happened to pan out.

Sure, these billionaire are human and they have the human foibles. And yes, it’s not necessarily the way it should be. On the other hand, the same thing happened when we had railways. People made incredible fortunes. A lot of people went bust. We, the average people, got railways out of it. Pretty good. Same thing with electric power. Same thing with many of these things. There’s a churning process that throws somebody up and later casts them or their heirs down.

Bubbles of extreme wealth happened in the 1890s, too, when people invented steam, and railways, and electricity. These new industries created incredible fortunes, which were all gone within two or three generations.

If we were like Europe, I would worry. What you find in Europe is that the same family has wealth for hundreds of years, so they’re entrenched not just in terms of wealth, but in terms of the political system and other ways. But so far, the U.S. has avoided this: extreme wealth hasn’t stuck, which is good. It shouldn’t stick. If you win the lottery, you make your billion dollars, but your grandkids have to work for a living.

On AI and Society

People are scared about AI. Perhaps they should be. But you need to realize that AI feeds on data. Without data, AI is nothing. You don’t actually have to watch the AI; you have to watch what it eats and what it does. The framework that we’ve set up, with the help of the EU and other people, is one where you can have your algorithms, you can have your AI, but I get to see what went in and what went out so that I can ask, is this a discriminatory decision? Is this the sort of thing that we want as humans? Or is this something that’s a little weird?

The most revealing analogy is that regulators, bureaucracies, parts of the government, are very much like AIs: They take in these rules that we call law, and they elaborate them, and they make decisions that affect our lives. The part that’s really bad about the current system is that we have very little oversight of these departments, regulators, and bureaucracies. The only control we have is the ability to elect somebody different. Let’s make that control over bureaucracies a lot more fine-grained. Let’s be able to look at every single decision, analyze them, and have all the different stakeholders come together, not just the big guys. Rather like legislatures were supposed to be at the beginning of the U.S.

In that case, we can ask fairly easily, is this a fair algorithm? Is this AI doing things that we as humans believe is ethical? It’s called human in the loop.•

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Since I was never a chess player, one of the things that surprised me when reading the long centerpiece of Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking, in which he recounted at length for the first time his two titanic battles in the 1990s with IBM’s Big Blue, was just how many seemingly obvious mistakes great human players make. I always assumed the best of the best went long flawless stretches before finally tripping up, but that’s not so. A game in which the two best players square off can see countless mistaken maneuvers—and that’s the case even if one of the competitors is a supercomputer. 

In a smart New Standard interview conducted by Will Dunn, Kasparov compares his own humblings at the feet of technology to the lot of us potentially encountering an AI enhanced enough to remake society over the next several decades. He’s more sanguine than most when confronted by the specter of machine dominance, believing as industries fall before computers, others will rise to provide new employment, and that humans will succeed in what he terms “open systems.” 

I think he’s making assumptions that may not prove true. Well-trained human telephone operators are to this point far better at handling caller queries than automated systems are, but that hasn’t stopped corporations from opting for the cheaper alternative. That doesn’t mean all jobs will disappear—though I bet lots of them in the medical field, including doctor, will be diminished—but it does mean that machines don’t necessarily have to be better to win, even outside of a closed system. Facebook and Google have all but proven that with their lackluster response to cyber espionage. And the more AI that slides into our lives, the more surveillance capitalism will become ubiquitous. 

An excerpt:

By the mid-90s, Moore’s Law had held true for three decades. As in so many areas, the machines appeared to be little more than a novelty until, following the curve of exponential growth, their power became suddenly apparent. “The whole idea that if we had enough time, we would avoid making mistakes,” says Kasparov, “was ignorant. Humans are poised to make mistakes, even the best humans. And the whole story of human-machine competition is that the machines – first it’s impossible [that they could play], then the machines are laughably weak, then they are competing, for a brief time, and then, forever after, they are superior.”

But the inevitability of the machines’ success, says Kasparov, is not a matter of brute force, but of reliability. “Machines have a steady hand. It’s not that machines can solve the game” – the number of possible moves is so high that, even calculating at 200 million moves per second, it would have taken Deep Blue longer than the life of its opponent, or the solar system or quite possibly the universe itself, to calculate them all – “it’s about making moves that are of a higher average quality than humans.” The machine, says Kasparov, need never fear losing its concentration because it can never feel fear and it has no concentration to lose. “It doesn’t bother about making a mistake in the previous move. Humans are by definition emotional. Even the top experts, whether it be in chess, or video games, or science – we are prisoners of our emotions. That makes us easy prey for machines, in a closed system.”   

In 1997, Kasparov played his second match (he had won the first) against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue and lost in the deciding game. He had been the World Champion since 1985, and would remain the world’s highest-rated human player until his retirement in 2005. He found losing to a machine to be “a shocking experience,” although this was partly, of course, because “I haven’t lost many games… Now, two decades later, I realise it was a natural process.”

But Kasparov does not think humans are about to be replaced entirely by machines. Even in cyber security, where automation and machine learning are necessary, “It’s not a closed system, because there are no written rules. Actually, it’s one of the areas where human-machine collaboration will have a decisive effect. I think it’s naïve to assume that machines could be totally dominant, because the angle of attack can change. There are so many things that can change. It’s an unlimited combination of patterns that can be manipulated.”•

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“It was very easy, all the machines are only cables and bulbs.”

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A lack of information can get you killed but so can the wrong information. Consider North Korea and Myanmar.

The former is infamously unplugged from all worldviews but the delusional one of Great Leader. It’s unclear how benighted the totality of the North Korean population has been made to be, but Suki Kim’s 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us, reveals “educated” elites to be all but automatons in the service of the fratricidal provocateur Kim Jong-un. It’s all a dream and very much a nightmare. The only hope is that those who are less privileged and not so directly indoctrinated aren’t as enamored with the state-wide cult, though that’s probably wishful thinking.

Like most of the world, the latter nation is connected to the Internet, which has become an airstrip for weaponized information drones. Facebook seems to be the particular social-media vehicle that’s helped foment the current ethnic-cleansing furor which has exploded the relatively tiny and diverse Asian nation onto the world-news page and the obituaries. Anyone who doubted social media aided the Arab Spring was incorrect. Those who now believe its effect in regards to Brexit, Trump and Myanmar has been overstated, are similarly naive. 

Two excerpts follow.

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From Hannah Beech’s NYT article “Across Myanmar, Denial of Ethnic Cleansing and Loathing of Rohingya“:

Mr. Aye Swe admitted he had never met a Muslim before, adding, “I have to thank Facebook because it is giving me the true information in Myanmar.”

Social media messaging has driven much of the rage in Myanmar. Though widespread access to cellphones only started a few years ago, mobile penetration is now about 90 percent. For many people, Facebook is their only source of news, and they have little experience in sifting fake news from credible reporting.

One widely shared message on Facebook, from a spokesman for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, emphasized that biscuits from the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, had been found at a Rohingya militant training camp. The United Nations called the post “irresponsible.”

The Myanmar government, however, insists the public needs to be guided.

“We do something that we call educating the people,” said U Pe Myint, the nation’s information minister. He acknowledged, “It looks rather like indoctrination, like in an authoritarian or totalitarian state.”•

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From Jon Schwarz’s Intercept Q&A with Kim:

Question:

I’ve always believed that North Korea would never engage in a nuclear first strike just out of self-preservation. But your description of your students did honestly give me pause. It made me think the risk of miscalculation on their part is higher than I realized.

Suki Kim: 

It was paradoxical. They could be very smart, yet could be completely deluded about everything. I don’t see why that would be different in the people who run the country. The ones that foreigners get to meet, like diplomats, are sophisticated and can talk to you on your level. But at the same time they also have this other side where they have really been raised to think differently, their reality is skewed. North Korea is the center of the universe, the rest of the world kind of doesn’t exist. They’ve been living this way for 70 years, in a complete cult.

My students did not know what the internet was, in 2011. Computer majors, from the best schools in Pyongyang. The system really is that brutal, for everyone.

Question:

I was also struck by your description of the degeneration of language in North Korea. [Kim writes that “Each time I visited the DPRK, I was shocked anew by their bastardization of the Korean language. Curses had taken root not only in their conversation and speeches but in their written language. They were everywhere – in poems, newspapers, in official Workers’ Party speeches, even in the lyrics of songs. … It was like finding the words fuck and shit in a presidential speech or on the front page of the New York Times.”]

Suki Kim: 

Yes, I think the language does reflect the society. Of course, the whole system is built around the risk of an impending war. So that violence has changed the Korean language. Plus these guys are thugs, Kim Jong-un and all the rest of them, that’s their taste and it’s become the taste of the country.

Question: 

Authoritarians universally seem to have terrible taste.

Suki Kim: 

It’s interesting to be analyzing North Korea in this period of time in America because there are a lot of similarities. Look at Trump’s nonstop tweeting about “fake news” and how great he is. That’s very familiar, that’s what North Korea does. It’s just endless propaganda. All these buildings with all these slogans shouting at you all the time, constantly talking about how the enemies are lying all the time.

Those catchy one-liners, how many words are there in a tweet? It’s very similar to those [North Korean] slogans.

This country right now, where you’re no longer able to tell what’s true or what’s a lie, starting from the top, that’s North Korea’s biggest problem. America should really look at that, there’s a lesson.•

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Tyler Cowen has made it difficult to take him seriously with his tepid performance during this great threat to America’s decency and democracy. He’s gone out of his way to make it seem his fellow Libertarian Peter Thiel is an innocent bystander who just hopes to do good work inside a somewhat dysfunctional Administration. What bullshit. Thiel was one of the driving forces of a deeply bigoted white nationalist campaign that used any and all means—including espionage, perhaps—to push an ignorant, mentally unfit incompetent and a raft of tiki-torchers into the White House. Pretending otherwise is intellectually dishonest. Thiel doesn’t move in the political circles he does by accident. That’s who he is.

It’s at least dawned on Cowen that bigotry, not economics, was the driving force in the U.S. election, a phenomena that has been witnessed in recent elections around the world. That’s not to say legitimate concerns about wealth inequality are absent from this new abnormal, but that the bigger issue is a sad tribal meme that’s gone viral all over the globe.

The opening of the Bloomberg View column “The New Populism Isn’t About Economics“:

Economic theories of populism are dead, we Americans just don’t know it yet. Over the past week, two countries have brought populists to power, but in both cases those places have been enjoying decent economic growth.

Andrej Babis’s party dominated the Czech national election Saturday, and he is almost certain to become the next prime minister. Babis has been described as “the anti-establishment businessman pledging to fight political corruption while facing fraud charges himself” — sound familiar? Yet in 2015, the Czech Republic had the European Union’s fastest growth rate at more than 4 percent; earlier this year, it was growing at 2.9 percent, with potential seen on the upside.

Last week’s negotiations in New Zealand brought Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern to power, with populist firebrand Winston Peters in the coalition government. Ardern wants to cut immigration, possibly in half, and place much tighter restrictions on foreign investment. Although New Zealand’s economic growth has been slowing, it’s mostly been above 2 percent since the end of the financial crisis.

Among emerging economies, the Philippines moved from being an Asian growth laggard into some years of 8 percent growth. Voters responded by electing as president Rodrigo Duterte, one of the most aggressive and authoritarian populists around. In eastern Europe, Poland has been seeing average 4 percent growth for more than 25 years, yet the country has moved in a strongly nationalist direction, flirting with sanctions from the EU for limiting judicial independence. Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and now the Czech Republic all are much wealthier than 20 years ago and mostly have been booming as of late. Yet to varying degrees they too have moved in nationalist, populist and possibly even anti-democratic directions.

Although these countries have rising inequality, their growth rates have elevated a wide swath of the citizenry, not just a few extremely wealthy people.

Even the U.S. fits this mold of prosperity and populism more than many people realize. For all the talk of stagnant wages, poll data indicated that Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican primaries had a median income of about $72,000, which is hardly poverty. Wages and household median income have started to rise once again.

The trend continues outside the world’s democracies. …

It’s time to admit that the nationalist turn in global politics isn’t mainly about economics or economic failures.•

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Even under the best of circumstances, sperm banks aimed at creating “superior babies” are a faulty proposition. Want the donor father to be a Harvard grad? Remember that Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner and Lou Dobbs—not particularly good or bright people—all fill that bill. Even the so-called “Nobel Prize sperm bank” didn’t really birth any great genius. Despite proactive planning, producing prodigies is a hit-or-miss proposition.

If such a sector serves any purpose at all, it’s as a harbinger of what’s to come when biotech eventually allows adults to “design” their offspring with greater precision. Such “remixing” probably won’t be possible in any profound way in our lifetimes, but something tells me that when it is, we’ll all be smart and beautiful and still kind of shitty.

From Ariana Eunjung Cha’s Washington Post article on the contemporary fertility industry:

Fertility companies freely admit that specimens from attractive donors go fast, but it’s intelligence that drives the pricing: Many companies charge more for donors with a graduate degree.

Talent sells, too. One cryobank, Family Creations, which has offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin and other large cities, notes that a 23-year-old egg donor “excels in calligraphy, singing, modeling, metal art sculpting, painting, drawing, shading and clay sculpting.” A 29-year-old donor “excels in softball, tennis, writing and dancing.”

The Seattle Sperm Bank categorizes its donors into three popular categories: “top athletes,” “physicians, dentists and medical residents,” and “musicians.”

And the Fairfax Cryobank in Northern Virginia, one of the nation’s largest, typically stocks sperm from about 500 carefully vetted donors whose profiles read like overeager suitors on a dating site: Donor No. 4499 “enjoys swimming, fencing and reading and writing poetry.” Donor No. 4963 “is an easygoing man with a quick wit.” Donor No. 4345 has “well-developed pectorals and arm muscles.”

Some companies offer a face-matching service that finds donors who look most like the prospective mom or dad. Or, if they prefer, like Jennifer Lawrence. Or Taye Diggs. Or any other famous person they want their offspring to resemble.•

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Larry Page long promised to keep the more anarchic elements of Google discrete from mainstream society. In 2013, he openly pined for a patch of America which his company could employ as a lawless laboratory—a Burning Man of sorts in which the fire could really run wild. From a Verge article of that year:

“There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.” Google is already well-known for coming up with some pretty interesting ideas — the idea of seeing what Page could come up with in this lawless beta-test country is simultaneously exciting and a bit terrifying.•

Of course, Page’s promise was always an empty one. Eric Schimdt was more forthcoming three years earlier when he wrote that the Internet was the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” Since Google was the biggest search engine by far, it’s place in this brave new world was central. Our gamble on an interconnected, unregulated global village played out astoundingly badly over the last calendar year as weaponized Russian bots were deployed on the lane-less highways of Google, Facebook and Twitter to disrupt important elections in the UK and USA. The interference led to Brexit and President Trump, so the Kremlin was elated, but it wasn’t without a backup plan should it fall short of those gargantuan goals: Simply fomenting a race war would have also been acceptable. That Google nearly a year after America’s Election Day is still publishing obvious misinformation for profit suggests the perilous experiments which have played out on Main Street in broad daylight will continue to do so as long as there’s money to be made.

· · ·

As for Google getting a barren stretch of remote land to use as its physical testing grounds, the dream has been changed and upgraded. Why settle for the sticks when you can get a place downtown? Once of Ray Bradbury’s worst ideas, which he discussed in 1996, was that “enlightened corporations” could take over cities. Along those lines, Google aims to have its Sidewalk Labs build a futuristic neighborhood in Toronto. Not to say that Page, Brin, Schmidt et al., want to detonate explosives on Spadina or bring flying cars to Yonge, but that a scenario in which billionaire technologists are allowed control over a city or even a few city blocks is in and of itself a dangerous experiment.

The opening of Emily Badger’s New York Times piece “Google’s Founders Wanted to Shape a City. Toronto Is Their Chance.“:

Google’s founders have long fantasized about what would happen if the company could shape the real world as much as it has life on the internet.

“Years ago, we were sitting there thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take technical things that we know and apply them to cities?” Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (now Google’s parent company), said Tuesday. “And our founders got really excited about this. We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”

That is, of course, an outlandish idea. “For all sorts of good reasons, by the way, it doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Schmidt acknowledged. But there he was standing Tuesday before an array of Canadian flags, in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario officials, to announce the closest thing anyone has seen to a tech company that takes the reins in a major city.

Toronto has about 800 acres of waterfront property awaiting redevelopment, a huge and prime stretch of land that amounts to one of the best opportunities in North America to rethink at scale how housing, streets and infrastructure are built. On Tuesday the government and the group overseeing the land announced that they were partnering with an Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, to develop the site.

They want it to embody the city of the future, a technological test bed for other communities around the world, “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”•

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Came across the above online ad quite by accident when searching yesterday on Google, nearly a year after our Presidential Election was bombarded by weaponized disinformation via the search giant as well as Facebook and Twitter, exploding our democracy. It’s difficult to believe that the Page-Brin company, valued at $498 billion, couldn’t have invested in emergency measures to make sure the flow of sludge stopped until the algorithms could be improved. If they couldn’t be adequately upgraded to curb the problem, then a relatively small amount of money could be directed to hire sentient beings to curtail much of the Kremlin-coded mayhem. Social media, a tool America created, has been turned on us, and it’s clear by now that Silicon Valley giants have neither the way nor the will to arrest the trouble without oversight.

From Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article “What Facebook Did to American Democracy,” a passage about how Fake News became Big Business, with Silicon Valley profiting from it handsomely:

In a December 2015 article for BuzzFeed, Joseph Bernstein argued that the dark forces of the internet became a counterculture.” He called it “Chanterculture” after the trolls who gathered at the meme-creating, often-racist 4chan message board. Others ended up calling it the “alt-right.” This culture combined a bunch of people who loved to perpetuate hoaxes with angry Gamergaters with “free-speech” advocates like Milo Yiannopoulos with honest-to-God neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And these people loved Donald Trump.

“This year Chanterculture found its true hero, who makes it plain that what we’re seeing is a genuine movement: the current master of American resentment, Donald Trump,” Bernstein wrote. “Everywhere you look on ‘politically incorrect’ subforums and random chans, he looms.”

When you combine hyper-partisan media with a group of people who love to clown “normies,” you end up with things like Pizzagate, a patently ridiculous and widely debunked conspiracy theory that held there was a child-pedophilia ring linked to Hillary Clinton somehow. It was just the most bizarre thing in the entire world. And many of the figures in Bernstein’s story were all over it, including several who the current president has consorted with on social media.

But Pizzagate was but the most Pynchonian of all the crazy misinformation and hoaxes that spread in the run-up to the election.

BuzzFeed, deeply attuned to the flows of the social web, was all over the story through reporter Craig Silverman. His best-known analysis happened after the election, when he showed that “in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election-news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

But he also tracked fake news before the election, as did other outlets such as The Washington Post, including showing that Facebook’s “Trending” algorithm regularly promoted fake news. By September of 2016, even the Pope himself was talking about fake news, by which we mean actual hoaxes or lies perpetuated by a variety of actors.

The longevity of Snopes shows that hoaxes are nothing new to the internet. Already in January 2015, Robinson Meyer reported about how Facebook was “cracking down on the fake news stories that plague News Feeds everywhere.”

What made the election cycle different was that all of these changes to the information ecosystem had made it possible to develop weird businesses around fake news.•

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Vision and speech recognition are cornerstones of Artificial Intelligence, but they’ll also be utilized in a further assault on reality should they fall into the wrong hands, which they will, of course, as they’ll be in all hands soon enough. A race for AI dominance among nations and corporations almost demands a boom in this sector. Soon enough, the veracity of everything from ancient history to the most recent trending topic will become even more muddled.

Even Disney devotee Ray Bradbury, who more than 50 years ago anxiously anticipated one fine day in the twenty-first century when a computerized Caesar would again address the masses, was leery about what might come to pass. “Am I frightened by any of this?” he asked. “Yes, certainly. For these audio-animatronic museums must be placed in hands that will build the truths as well as possible, and lie only through occasional error.”

In an excellent Conversation essay about the meaning of the original Blade Runner prompted by the release of its sequel, Marsha Gordon wonders about the withering of memory in the presence of profound AI, as reality receives an “upgrade.” An excerpt:

Today, the relationship between corporations, machines and humans defines modern life in ways that Ridley Scott – even in his wildest and most dystopic imagination – couldn’t have forecast in 1982.

In Blade Runner, implanted memories are propped up by coveted (but fake) family photos. Yet a world in which memory is fragile and malleable seems all too possible and familiar. Recent studies have shown that people’s memories are increasingly susceptible to being warped by social media misinformation, whether it’s stories of fake terrorist attacks or Muslims celebrating after 9/11. When this misinformation spreads on social media networks, it can create and reinforce false collective memories, fomenting a crisis of reality that can skew election results or whip up small town hysteria.

Meanwhile, Facebook has studied how it can manipulate the way its users feel – and yet over a billion people a day log on to willingly participate in its massive data collection efforts.

Our entrancement with technology might seem less dramatic than the full-blown love affair that Scott imagined, but it’s no less all-consuming. We often prioritize our smartphones over human social interactions, with millennials checking their phones over 150 times a day. In fact, even as people increasingly feel that they cannot live without their smartphones, many say that the devices are ruining their relationships.

And at a time when we’re faced with the likelihood of being unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake – a world of Twitter bots and doctored photographs, trolling and faux-outrage, mechanical pets and plastic surgery – we might be well served by recalling Deckard’s first conversation upon arriving at Tyrell Corp. Spotting an owl, Deckard asks, “It’s artificial?” Rachael replies, not skipping a beat, “Of course it is.”

In Blade Runner, reality no longer really matters.

How much longer will it matter to us?•

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The truth was supposed to set us free.

There are more facts readily available to people in our age than ever before. It’s not even close. But the powerful tools that disseminate these bits of knowledge can also be repurposed to obliterate truth, to make all things seem equal, to even make the worse seem the better.

Prior to social media going viral, America already had built an infrastructure amenable to disinformation and conspiracy theories, with Fox News and right-wing radio not selling conservative policy but offering distortions and racial dissension. The Internet immensely broadened the stage for such ill-intended players, making room for Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to deliver a meteoric impact on the center from the deepest and darkest corners of the fringe. Donald Trump was even able to exploit this new abnormal to activate a racist base all the way to the White House, with, of course, copious aid from Russia.

In regards to those Russians: We pale in comparison to them in weaponizing the new Information Age, as Putin’s Kremlin, a regime leading its country into many other kinds of disaster, has been able to successfully use our inventions to organize the new rules of engagement, utilizing social media not only to spread messages helpful to its cause but also in mobilizing the complicit and unwitting in other nations to do its bidding. It’s a virtual-and-actual hybrid aimed at disturbing the world, and even the Kremlin has to be shocked by how wonderfully well it’s worked thus far. It couldn’t have occurred without numerous Americans in high positions being duplicitous, but it also wouldn’t have been possible without our new tools.

The opening of Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times Magazine piece “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War“:

One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.
 
By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West.•

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