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Facebook has been trying to deny its outsize role in creating a filter bubble for several election seasons, though that balloon burst for good after the fake-news onslaught on 2016. Those who stubbornly denied that the Arab Spring was enabled to a good degree by our powerful new tools were crushed beneath the other shoe dropping last November. In the right moment, social media can have a deep impact on governments, for better or worse.

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In all fairness, Mark Zuckerberg’s empire isn’t alone in the fake-news business. The 21 years of Fox News have overlapped almost exactly with a steep decline in trust in mass media among Republicans and Independents. Many of the senior citizens who voted for Trump have never looked at News Feed, instead absorbing misinformation from Sean Hannity and similar talkers. For all the influence of those outlets, however, their reach is dwarfed by Facebook, which doesn’t count its users in millions but billions. And social media would appear to be a better way to reach undecideds, a surer approach when trying to tip an election.

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In an excellent New York Times Magazine feature, Farhad Manjoo investigates News Feed, a “global news distributor that is run by machines, rather than by humans,” as Zuckerberg newly tries to control the chaos of his invention, a ginormous piece of the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. He seems to have good intentions, but it may not be possible to maximize both profits and ethics, and his invention might just be irrevocably bad for individuals and worse for democracy. The system itself may be a fatal error.

As Manjoo notes, “The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition or seniority.” Zuckerberg has likely grown from the person who said seven or so years ago that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” but he’s still deeply dedicated to personalization and selectively oblivious about the monster he’s created.

The writer stresses that Facebook is trying to fix its fake-news problem via engineering rather than editing. The latter is sometimes far from perfect–the New York Times itself wasn’t without culpability in the recent election–but the answer to all technological problems isn’t necessarily more technology.

An excerpt:

After studying how people shared 1.25 million stories during the campaign, a team of researchers at M.I.T. and Harvard implicated Facebook and Twitter in the larger failure of media in 2016. The researchers found that social media created a right-wing echo chamber: a “media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyperpartisan perspective to the world.” The findings partially echoed a long-held worry about social news: that people would use sites like Facebook to cocoon themselves into self-reinforcing bubbles of confirmatory ideas, to the detriment of civility and a shared factual basis from which to make collective, democratic decisions. A week and a half after the election, President Obama bemoaned “an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television.”

After the election, Zuckerberg offered a few pat defenses of Facebook’s role. “I’m actually quite proud of the impact that we were able to have on civic discourse over all,” he said when we spoke in January. Misinformation on Facebook was not as big a problem as some believed it was, but Facebook nevertheless would do more to battle it, he pledged. Echo chambers were a concern, but if the source was people’s own confirmation bias, was it really Facebook’s problem to solve?

It was hard to tell how seriously Zuckerberg took the criticisms of his service and its increasingly paradoxical role in the world. He had spent much of his life building a magnificent machine to bring people together. By the most literal measures, he’d succeeded spectacularly, but what had that connection wrought? Across the globe, Facebook now seems to benefit actors who want to undermine the global vision at its foundation. Supporters of Trump and the European right-wing nationalists who aim to turn their nations inward and dissolve alliances, trolls sowing cross-border paranoia, even ISIS with its skillful social-media recruiting and propagandizing — all of them have sought in their own ways to split the Zuckerbergian world apart. And they are using his own machine to do it.

In Silicon Valley, current events tend to fade into the background. The Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and every recent presidential election occurred, for the tech industry, on some parallel but distant timeline divorced from the everyday business of digitizing the world. Then Donald Trump won. In the 17 years I’ve spent covering Silicon Valley, I’ve never seen anything shake the place like his victory. In the span of a few months, the Valley has been transformed from a politically disengaged company town into a center of anti-Trump resistance and fear. A week after the election, one start-up founder sent me a private message on Twitter: “I think it’s worse than I thought,” he wrote. “Originally I thought 18 months. I’ve cut that in half.” Until what? “Apocalypse. End of the world.”•

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Laurie Penny, who a couple months ago published the excellent Pacific-Standard piece “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right,” has just penned “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless,” a great Baffler article about “well-being ideology” or the selling of self-improvement systems in an era of pending climate collapse and capitalism run amok.

In this odd moment of food fetishization and FitBit (at least in the West), we’re gorging and gauging as Rome burns and seas rise. We’re urged to live healthier and happier lives by corporations and governments, not an unreasonable request, but it’s an impossible mission sans social safety nets and a habitable plant. Ballooning wealth inequality is detrimental to democracies and their citizenry alike, and there’s just so much individuals can do to steel themselves from the chaos it brings.

It makes sense that in America the culmination of this medicine show is a President whose family literally worshiped, when he was a child, at the church of Norman Vincent Peale. The power of positive thinking, however, won’t remove lead from the Flint water supply, cancel climate change or prevent factories from falling into the grip of robot hands and low-paid contractors. It’s really a false doctrine, a Depression Era dance marathon reimagined for the Digital Age. The last one to hit the floor wins.

Still, Penny manages to find some value in yoga and self-care despite the gathering storm.

The opening:

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”•

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From the November 6, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In an excellent BBC Future piece, Rachel Nuwer attempts to weigh how close the West is to societal collapse, an implosion that would occur, if it does, not because of scarcity but due to our system, plagued by wealth inequality, failing at distribution.

Climate change may also play an important role, with a potential refugee crisis that will dwarf Syria’s tragedy, the relatively “dry” states overwhelmed by the inundation. Or perhaps the luckier lands will meet with disaster by trying to build a wall to keep the future out. Either reality is fraught.

The writer relies in part on the computer models of systems scientists to gauge if ecological strain and economic stratification will topple us, some of which suggest the latter factor could do us in entirely on its own, though the more likely scenario would be a confluence of unfortunate circumstances.

Of course, models have long predicted that great societies, actual or virtual, would soon be ghost towns. In 2014, two young Princeton academics applied epidemiology to social networks to make a prognostication I’m sure they’d like wiped from the Internet: By 2017, Facebook would lose 80% of its users. Missed by that much.

Still, sooner or later, entropy will leave a bruise.

The opening:

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?•

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Steve Wozniak’s views have evolved quickly in regards to the existential threat of intelligent machines. In early 2015, he told the Australian Financial Review that “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” The future is “very bad for people,” he warned. Just a few months later, Homo sapiens received an upgrade from the Apple co-founder, who said AI would keep us around as “family pets,” even if they were making all the crucial decisions.

Two years on, Wozniak has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. On Monday, he said this on CNBC: “I’ve totally changed my mind — We aren’t talking about artificial intelligence that sits down and says, ‘What is my life in the world? What do I have as obstacles? How do I solve them? What should I solve?’,” Wozniak said. “Only humans do that.”

Well, that’s a relief. In the same week, I successfully filed my taxes and found out my species wasn’t doomed. Nice.

The Woz granted an interview to USA Today in advance of this weekend’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, with it’s forward-thinking theme: “The Future of Humanity: Where Will We Be in 2075?”  In that year, the computer programmer believes Apple, Facebook and Google and will be even bigger and more formidable corporations and cities will sprout up in heretofore uninhabitable deserts. Neither seems plausible.

An excerpt:

Woz shared some other predictions on what type of planet we can expect in 2075:

New cities. Deserts could be ideal locations for cities of the future, designed and built from scratch, according to Wozniak. There, housing problems will not exist and people will shuttle among domed structures. Special wearable suits will allow people to venture outside, he said.

— The influence of artificial intelligence. Within all cities, AI will be ubiquitous, Wozniak says. Like a scene straight from the movie Minority Report, consumers will interact with smart walls and other surfaces to shop, communicate and be entertained. Medical devices will enable self-diagnosis and doctor-free prescriptions, he says. “The question will be ethical, on whether we can eliminate the need for physicians,” he says.

— Mars colony. Woz is convinced a colony will exist on the Red Planet. Echoing the sentiments of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin start-up has designs on traveling to Mars, Wozniak envisions Earth zoned for residential use and Mars for heavy industry.

— Extraterrestrials. With apologies to those who believe in aliens, Wozniak says there is a “random chance” that Earthlings will communicate with another race. “It’s worth trying,” he says, “but I don’t have high hopes.”•

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Life is cheap today in America, and cheap is often expensive.

At some point during the last few decades, we ceased being called “citizens” and began to be referred to as “consumers.” The bitterly funny joke is that consumer protections were being stripped away all the while.

Price became everything. The lower the sticker number, the better, we were told. Facebook and Google and Internet giants are “free” to use. Except that the costs are hidden, if barely, as we trade our privacy for some “friends.” Uber and Lyft are usually less expensive because the drivers aren’t given benefits or basic protections. Cheap goods from Walmart of Amazon mean the expenses have been passed on to others. More and more, we’re all others now.

United bloodying a passenger who refused to be removed from a flight resonated with so many because it doesn’t feel like an outrageous outlier but a commentary on where we are now–and where we may be heading. 

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There’s a scene in Wallace Shawn’s latest play, Evening at the Talk House, about a time much like own in which America has descended into totalitarianism, and intellect and decency have become enemies of the nation. In an early scene, a character has been given a “short battering” by friends, a not uncommon occurrence in the new abnormal, because he was getting close to “crossing a line.”

Robert:

I mean, really, Dick, this is amazing, how are you?

Dick:

I’m absolutely fine. Very very well. (A slight pause) What? Oh–this? (Pointing to his face) Well! No–I– (Somewhat more quietly and confidentially) No, don’t worry about that! I was beaten, rather recently, by some friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great. No–I loved it! In fact, you should try it some time, Robert. It’s now what you think. It was quite fun, I’m serious.

Robert:

My God, what happened?

Dick:

Well, it was a short battering. You know. Informal. A small group of my friends–we met, you know, and they just said, Dick, you see, you’re getting a bit close to being “grr– grr— grr–” (He covers his mouth and makes a weird animal sound, miming odd animal-like behavior) so we have to “ergh” (Miming some punches) –and we have to “ergh” (More mimed blows) –and maybe a bit of “ergh” … (Mimed kicks)

Robert:

You mean they–?–

Dick:

They were right, obviously. I was getting to a point where I was about to cross a line, and this was sort of a case of, “Stop! Go back a few steps!” You know, that sort of thing.

Robert:

Crossing a line? But, Dick–my God, you were–you were always such a quiet, well-behaved little bastard when I knew you, Dick.

Dick:

I still am! (He laughs loudly) But that’s what I find myself saying every day. I haven’t changed. Everything else has changed Do you know what I mean?•

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From Matt Levine at Bloomberg View:

 

Yesterday United Airlines provided a nice demonstration of the proposition that capitalism is built on a foundation of violence, when it summoned agents of the state to beat up a customer who insisted that United provide the service he had paid for. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system,” he might have yelled, had the police not knocked him out. (“He fell,” commented the police.)

United then went on to demonstrate that if you are a major airline in 2017, you don’t have to be very good at public relations, putting out a series of blasé statements whose main message was “whatever, we are an airline, you will come crawling back.” It was interesting to see people on Twitter talk about boycotting United over this incident, as though that was a possible course of action. Consider the revealed preferences: The man at the center of the incident, who was violently attacked for sitting in the seat that he had paid for, tried to run back onto the plane. He’s not boycotting United! He just wanted to get home.

We talk a lot around here about the theory that increasingly concentrated cross-ownership of the airline industry by institutional investors has reduced competition among airlines, and I suppose you could read this incident as proof that United is so insulated from competitive pressures that it can afford to beat up its customers without losing any market share. But really this story seems more like the result of competition — but competition solely on price, not on service. If airlines compete solely on price, some passengers will get beaten up. “Investors seem impressed by the sadistic commitment to cost control,” comments Matt Klein“By auctioning off overbooked seats, economist James Heins estimates that $100 billion has been saved by the airline industry and its customers in the 30-plus years since the practice was introduced.” Ryanair would introduce Beating Class if it could save money.

Anyway blah blah blah United should have run a fair auction and only removed people voluntarily at agreed-on rates of compensation, says the Economist, but of course from United’s perspective that’s not true. Why pay more to rescind a passenger’s ticket, when you could just call in the cops?•

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Some questions of the future may be answered already because the difference between now and then is often one of degree, not kind. 

We’re told we’ll have radical abundance tomorrow, but we already pretty much have it and distribute it poorly. Will things really be different when we have even more?

Similarly, some wonder if biotech and genetic modification will be too outré for us to accept beyond mere medical treatment. Will human enhancement be more than we can bear? Not likely. Cosmetic surgery is currently the dress rehearsal. 

The only thing holding back a surge in selective “perfection” procedures isn’t legislation but rather the inscrutable nature of genes. When (and if) we gain enough understanding for the process to be worked out, a gold rush will be on, and complications will ensue.

Two excerpts follow.


From Li Yuan’s sad WSJ article about China’s online stars:

Deng Qian has had more than a dozen cosmetic surgeries, to slim her arms, enlarge her breasts and change almost every part of her face.

“Everything above my belly button is fake,” she says.

Above the neck, Ms. Deng’s aim was an “online-star face”—big eyes, long nose, high forehead and sharp chin, a look pursued by young women seeking online celebrity and the big income that can follow.

“Chinese society values a pretty face above anything else,” says the 24-year-old former business major. “If you’re not pretty, nobody will care about you, and nobody will follow you online.”

On live-streaming sites and on Weibo, China’s Twitter , Ms. Deng sings, discusses her life and gives makeup demos. In the ranks of Chinese online celebrities, she’s lower-tier—her Weibo followers number roughly 23,600—and desperate to climb higher. She went on China’s top dating show and top job-seeking show and starred in a documentary about plastic surgery.

In her world, plastic surgery is a necessity, an online-star face an investment in a better future.•


From Philip Ball’s Guardian piece on “designer babies”: 

[Bioethicist Henry] Greely suspects, even if it is used at first only to avoid serious genetic diseases, we need to start thinking hard about the options we might be faced with. “Choices will be made,” he says, “and if informed people do not participate in making those choices, ignorant people will make them.”

Green thinks that technological advances could make “design” increasingly versatile. In the next 40-50 years, he says, “we’ll start seeing the use of gene editing and reproductive technologies for enhancement: blond hair and blue eyes, improved athletic abilities, enhanced reading skills or numeracy, and so on.”

He’s less optimistic about the consequences, saying that we will then see social tensions “as the well-to-do exploit technologies that make them even better off”, increasing the relatively worsened health status of the world’s poor. As Greely points out, a perfectly feasible 10-20% improvement in health via PGD, added to the comparable advantage that wealth already brings, could lead to a widening of the health gap between rich and poor, both within a society and between nations.

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I was critical of Bill Gates’ recent suggestion that America utilize taxation to slow down progress in robotics. First of all, defining “robot” isn’t so simple. Are they only machines that move across warehouse floors? Are they algorithms? Will they be something else entirely tomorrow?  

Also there’s no central switch that can be pointed at OFF until everything makes sense. The race in machine intelligence among states will see the actions of some players influence priorities and ethics across borders. No wall will keep out the future.

In “Learning to Love Intelligent Machines,” a WSJ essay taken from his book Deep Thinking: Where Artificial Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, Garry Kasparov, the Digital Age John Henry, argues that AI will bring a bounty, not a threat. I agree with the former contention but not the latter.

John Henry’s postscript: He won, but he died. In the aftermath, steam and gas and electricity made us richer as they transformed society, but they also imperiled us with their deleterious impact on the environment. Long after we learned the damage the carbon was doing, it’s proven difficult politically and financially to alter the course and unplug the machine.

Garry Kasparov’s postscript: He lost, but he survived, and perhaps he, and the rest of us, will thrive because of increasingly intelligent machines. Aspects of life will improve, some markedly, as machines progress, but these stronger tools will also make for greater potential dangers: nonstop surveillance, disruption to democracy, complete loss of privacy, cascading disaster, etc. There will be no turning off this machine once we’re fully lowered into it, and that will be soon.

We may not be able to avoid extinction as a species in the long run without super-algorithms, but they will also be their own existential risk.

Kasparov is right, however, in saying: “There is no going back, only forward.” 

The opening:

It was my blessing and my curse to be the world chess champion when computers finally reached a world championship level of play. When I resigned the final match game against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue on May 11, 1997, I became the first world champion to be defeated in a classical match by a machine.

It is no secret that I hate losing, and I did not take it well. But losing to a computer wasn’t as harsh a blow to me as many at the time thought it was for humanity as a whole. The cover of Newsweek called the match “The Brain’s Last Stand.” Those six games in 1997 gave a dark cast to the narrative of “man versus machine” in the digital age, much as the legend of John Henry did for the era of steam and steel.

But it’s possible to draw a very different lesson from my encounter with Deep Blue. Twenty years later, after learning much more about the subject, I am convinced that we must stop seeing intelligent machines as our rivals. Disruptive as they may be, they are not a threat to humankind but a great boon, providing us with endless opportunities to extend our capabilities and improve our lives.•


In his WSJ article, Kasparov writes that by the 1980s, people knew machines would soon be kings of chess. He was most certainly not among that enlightened set.

He defeated Deep Thought in 1989 and believed a computer could never best him. But by 1997 Deep Blue turned him–and humanity–into an also-ran in some key ways. The chess master couldn’t believe it at first–he assumed his opponent was manipulated by humans behind the scene, like the Mechanical Turk, the faux chess-playing machine from the 18th century. But no sleight of hand was needed.

Below are the openings of three Bruce Weber New York Times articles written during the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup which chart the rise of the machines.

Responding to defeat with the pride and tenacity of a champion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue drew even yesterday in its match against Garry Kasparov, the world’s best human chess player, winning the second of their six games and stunning many chess experts with its strategy.

Joel Benjamin, the grandmaster who works with the Deep Blue team, declared breathlessly: “This was not a computer-style game. This was real chess!”

He was seconded by others.

“Nice style!” said Susan Polgar, the women’s world champion. “Really impressive. The computer played a champion’s style, like Karpov,” she continued, referring to Anatoly Karpov, a former world champion who is widely regarded as second in strength only to Mr. Kasparov. “Deep Blue made many moves that were based on understanding chess, on feeling the position. We all thought computers couldn’t do that.”•

Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, opened the third game of his six-game match against the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue yesterday in peculiar fashion, by moving his queen’s pawn forward a single square. Huh?

“I think we have a new opening move,” said Yasser Seirawan, a grandmaster providing live commentary on the match. “What should we call it?”

Mike Valvo, an international master who is a commentator, said, “The computer has caused Garry to act in strange ways.”

Indeed it has. Mr. Kasparov, who swiftly became more conventional and subtle in his play, went on to a draw with Deep Blue, leaving the score of Man vs. Machine at 1 1/2 apiece. (A draw is worth half a point to each player.) But it is clear that after his loss in Game 2 on Sunday, in which he resigned after 45 moves, Mr. Kasparov does not yet have a handle on Deep Blue’s predilections, and that he is still struggling to elicit them.•

In brisk and brutal fashion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue unseated humanity, at least temporarily, as the finest chess playing entity on the planet yesterday, when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, resigned the sixth and final game of the match after just 19 moves, saying, “I lost my fighting spirit.”

The unexpectedly swift denouement to the bitterly fought contest came as a surprise, because until yesterday Mr. Kasparov had been able to summon the wherewithal to match Deep Blue gambit for gambit.

The manner of the conclusion overshadowed the debate over the meaning of the computer’s success. Grandmasters and computer experts alike went from praising the match as a great experiment, invaluable to both science and chess (if a temporary blow to the collective ego of the human race) to smacking their foreheads in amazement at the champion’s abrupt crumpling.

“It had the impact of a Greek tragedy,” said Monty Newborn, chairman of the chess committee for the Association for Computing, which was responsible for officiating the match.

It was the second victory of the match for the computer — there were three draws — making the final score 3 1/2 to 2 1/2, the first time any chess champion has been beaten by a machine in a traditional match. Mr. Kasparov, 34, retains his title, which he has held since 1985, but the loss was nonetheless unprecedented in his career; he has never before lost a multigame match against an individual opponent.

Afterward, he was both bitter at what he perceived to be unfair advantages enjoyed by the computer and, in his word, ashamed of his poor performance yesterday.

“I was not in the mood of playing at all,” he said, adding that after Game 5 on Saturday, he had become so dispirited that he felt the match was already over. Asked why, he said: “I’m a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.”•

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Tim Berners-Lee didn’t intend to gift us a Trojan horse with the World Wide Web, if that’s what it’s turned out to be, but the good, old days of people complaining about cat memes are long gone.

Techworld article by Scott Casey highlights two of the British computer scientist’s fears: 1) the global economy may eventually be run by AI sans human input, and 2) the Internet has undermined democracy.

On the first point: I’ve posted before about how future driverless-taxi companies can be self-owned, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that at least large swaths of financial sector businesses can become CEO-less. No reason to feel bad for the Jamie Dimons of the world, who still think banking regulations a bad idea even after the 2008 collapse that hurt so many, but the chaos in such a system would be almost untrackable.

The second point, even more dangerous, seems to have been confirmed over the last year: Those who thought social media was given too much credit for the Arab Spring were sadly wrong. It can be used to tilt the balance in favor of liberty but also against it, the latter result now abundantly clear. These are powerful tools–and powerful weapons.

Berners-Lee’s suggestion that political organizations not be allowed to target ads is a good one, but I’m afraid there’s no way to remove all the ghosts from inside his machine.

An excerpt:

Speaking in London today he built on these concerns, asking if social networks like Twitter are “net good for the planet” and calling for a rethink of how the internet tends to propagate “nasty ideas” over “constructive” ones.

“So the conclusion is a complete change of strategy,” he said. “We need to not leave people to create whatever social networks they like, we have to think about the impact that things have on society and possibly rethink the entire platform.”

Speaking in what appears to be a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, Berners-Lee also reiterated his concerns over political advertising being heavily targeted. He asked: “Should we introduce a rule that if you’re a political organisation, you may not target?” 

“I talk about the horror scenario of going to a candidate’s webpage and depending on who you were you get a different message and that is just marketing 101 for the political websites out there. So we need to rethink the way we have built society on top of the web.”•

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  • Answers we’re given save us precious time, but solutions we find on our own seem to be absorbed more deeply, and the errors we make while searching often yield unintended discoveries. 
  • What if there eventually is an answer machine that’s a quantum leap beyond current search engines and voice-enabled digital assistants? What if the cloud is tapped in such a way so that answers rain down on us? If we don’t destroy ourselves first, it will almost surely emerge. I think accidental discoveries would still be part of the process, but the balance of power will shift.
  • Norman Mailer pursued subjects as grand as his ego, and it was the Apollo 11 mission was sobering for him–the Moby Dick to his Ahab. He knew the beginning of space voyage was the end, in a sense, of humans, or, at least, of humans sitting in the driver’s seat. As we soared higher than ever before, we were lowered.
  • Freestyle chess, in which human and computer teams outperform a single human or a single computer, is currently thought of as a model for future collaboration between people and machines, but it isn’t likely to broadly work that way. In many valued skills, machines will be kings and we’ll be pawns. We won’t be leading the way but instead working from data trail left behind by supercomputers. That will lead to great innovations and also be very dangerous.

Kevin Kelly, who’s asserted that “we’re constantly redefining what humans are here for,” believes the ETA of answer machines is very near, and the best we’ll be able to do once they arrive will be to ask better questions. Until, that is, we’re also relieved of that duty. From a short Kelly essay at GE Reports based on The Inevitable:

Today we have rapidly improving technology to answer our questions. We have Siri on our phones and Alexa in our homes. We have Google, Bing and Baidu getting smarter every day. Very soon we’ll live in a world where we will be able to ask the cloud, in conversational tones, for free, any question at all. And if that question has a known answer, the machine will explain it to us, again and again if need be.

Yet, while the answer machine can expand instant answers infinitely, our time to form the next question is very limited. There is an asymmetry in the work needed to generate a good question versus the work and speed needed to absorb an answer. While answers become cheap, our questions become valuable. This is the inverse of the situation for the past millennia, when it was easier to ask a question than to answer it. Pablo Picasso brilliantly anticipated this inversion in 1964 when he told the writer William Fifield, “Computers are useless. They only give you answers.”

There is great opportunity and a lot of money to be made in developing new technologies to provide instant, cheap, correct answers to the world’s billions of questions every minute. Billions of dollars of VC investment are pouring into startups for machine learning and artificial intelligence. Answers are on their way to becoming a commodity.  It will not be an exaggeration to say that if you want an answer in the future you will ask a machine. It will deliver a great one for free.

The role of humans, at least for a while, will be to ask questions. To ask a great question will be seen as the mark of an educated person. A great question, ironically, produces not only a good answer, but also more good follow-up questions! Great question creators will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new industries, new brands and new possibilities that our restless species can explore. A good question is worth a million good answers. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering. If answers indeed become a commodity, questions become the new wealth.•

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Peter Singer advised utilitarians of good conscience to serve in the Trump Administration if they felt they could mitigate the awfulness of what was to be a deeply dishonest, bigoted, sociopathic White House, the caveat being they need be prepared to resign if asked to participate in unethical behavior.

The jury is still out on that advice. Everyone involved is complicit in the wanton destruction of the environment, an existential threat, and any attempts at neutralization will be rebuffed. Civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights will be rolled back, no exceptions. Scientific research and culture will be casualties.

Mattis and McMaster are sometimes exhibited as examples of those who can inject some sanity into an unprecedented shitstorm, but they’ve both already had to often act within the constraints of Trump’s alternative universe, a constellation of lies about his predecessor wiretapping him, millions of illegal voters casting ballots, etc. McMaster has been able to eject Bannon and other kooks from the NSA, a real plus, but over time he’ll certainly have to carefully weigh how far he’s willing range from his core values.

A poisonous environment can gradually work on the healthiest bodies.

· · ·

In a Nautilus essay, Singer analyzes a different ethical question: How should we treat non-humans who possess some form of consciousness, whether we’re talking about ETs or animals that help make a BLT? The moral philosopher breaks no new ground in his arguments but states them well. As he writes, “the existence of another mind—another center of consciousness—places moral demands on us.”

The opening:

Last January I was walking with my granddaughter along a beach near Melbourne when we noticed several people gathered around a rock pool, peering into the water. Wondering what had attracted their attention, we went over and saw that it was an octopus. If the spectators were interested in it, it also seemed interested in them. It came to the edge of the pool, one of its eyes directed at the people above, and stretched a tentacle out of the water, as if offering to shake hands. No one took up the offer but at least no one tried to capture the animal or turn it into calamari. That was pleasing because, as Peter Godfrey-Smith says in his recent book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, an octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

If we do ever meet an intelligent alien, even a tasty one, I hope we have sufficient ethical awareness to think of more than pleasing our palates or filling our stomachs. My view that this would be the wrong way to respond to such an encounter, however, leads to a deeper question: What moral status would extra-terrestrials have? Would we have obligations to them? Would they have rights? And would our answers depend on their intelligence?•

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From the January 29, 1851 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In Michael Crichton’s original 1973 Westworld, when the machines begin to rise, the operators are flummoxed about what measures to take to prevent calamity. One dejected scientist says resignedly about the robots run amok: “They’ve been designed by other computers…we don’t know exactly how they work.”

As algorithms grow more complex, they begin to escape us. Deep learning will encourage such opaqueness if it develops unchecked, which is currently the most likely scenario. Some who should know better have repeated the ridiculous idea that if things go wrong, we can just pull out one plug or another and all will be fine.

There will be no plug. Even if there was, in a highly technological society, yanking it from the wall would mean the end of us. 

In “The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI,” an excellent Will Knight Technology Review article, the author speaks to the problem of machines teaching themselves, a powerful tool and, perhaps, weapon. He warns that “we’ve never before built machines that operate in ways their creators don’t understand.” 

The opening:

Last year, a strange self-driving car was released onto the quiet roads of Monmouth County, New Jersey. The experimental vehicle, developed by researchers at the chip maker Nvidia, didn’t look different from other autonomous cars, but it was unlike anything demonstrated by Google, Tesla, or General Motors, and it showed the rising power of artificial intelligence. The car didn’t follow a single instruction provided by an engineer or programmer. Instead, it relied entirely on an algorithm that had taught itself to drive by watching a human do it.

Getting a car to drive this way was an impressive feat. But it’s also a bit unsettling, since it isn’t completely clear how the car makes its decisions. Information from the vehicle’s sensors goes straight into a huge network of artificial neurons that process the data and then deliver the commands required to operate the steering wheel, the brakes, and other systems. The result seems to match the responses you’d expect from a human driver. But what if one day it did something unexpected—crashed into a tree, or sat at a green light? As things stand now, it might be difficult to find out why. The system is so complicated that even the engineers who designed it may struggle to isolate the reason for any single action. And you can’t ask it: there is no obvious way to design such a system so that it could always explain why it did what it did.

The mysterious mind of this vehicle points to a looming issue with artificial intelligence. The car’s underlying AI technology, known as deep learning, has proved very powerful at solving problems in recent years, and it has been widely deployed for tasks like image captioning, voice recognition, and language translation. There is now hope that the same techniques will be able to diagnose deadly diseases, make million-dollar trading decisions, and do countless other things to transform whole industries.

But this won’t happen—or shouldn’t happen—unless we find ways of making techniques like deep learning more understandable to their creators and accountable to their users.•

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If you believe driverless cars won’t soon impact humans who have jobs behind the wheel, a valid argument would be that you think the technology will take considerably longer to implement than expected. You may not wind up being correct, but it’s a rational stance.

Making a case, though, that robocars won’t supplant taxi, bus, limo and delivery drivers because humans possess priceless intangibles is wrong-minded, with a couple of exceptions. Some in the future may desire a human driver as an expensive luxury item, a status symbol, the way a few among us still purchase hand-made shoes. And elderly passengers might need a helping hand into and out of a vehicle, which could require a human helper, even if that person isn’t doubling as the driver. A graying population almost demands such a service.

Plenty of analysts have fallen into what I believe is a trap by trying to apply the example of the persistence of human and freestyle chess in the aftermath of Deep Blue to all fields. Let’s remember that even though a few souls are employed in the chess field, it’s mostly just a leisure game, not a business looking to eliminate costs. While a human paired with a computer may currently be the team to beat, that’s likely just a transitional phase, with people ending up on the losing end of the board. Driverless cars, once perfected, will likewise kick us to the curb.

From Lisa Eadicicco of Time:

Rachel Bolles, who’s been driving for Uber in the Columbus, Ohio area for just over a year, says her job is about much more than getting passengers from A to B. “I consider myself part nanny, part chauffeur,” she says. “A lot of these people just need someone to talk to.”

That was more true than ever when Bolles picked up a distraught customer coping with the death of his girlfriend’s father. Having recently lost her own father, Bolles empathized and offered advice during the trip. “It was one of those rides you walk away from feeling really good,” she says.

But many observers argue that the approximately 4.5 million Americans who work as professional drivers in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced by self-driving vehicles. Once a far-flung fantasy, the technology is inching closer to reality every day. …

Despite self-driving vehicles’ impressive progress, neither Bolles nor any of the half-dozen other rideshare drivers TIME interviewed expressed fear of losing their job to a robotic car any time soon. Some envision themselves working in a different field by the time self-driving technology is ready for primetime, which will likely take several years at least. (Workers, after all, tend to be short-term thinkers.) Others believe the tech may complement, but not completely replace, human drivers. “There’s a lot more to driving than not running into another car,” said Kat Ellery, who also drives for Uber and Lyft in Columbus. “There are a lot of idiosyncrasies that [self-driving cars] can’t account for.”•

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World events conspired to start squeezing middle- and working-class Americans in the 1970s, but it was in the following decade of the Reagan Revolution that the games truly began in earnest. The air-traffic controllers got the boot first, but the point of the toe soon came for the rest of us.

Unions, consumer protections and financial regulation headed in the wrong direction for most, and globalization and automation added more layers of pressure. The markets were celebrated over all else. Corporations became “people.”

The current rise of the Gig Economy, that Libertarian wet dream about “freedom” or some such bullshit, is just the supersized version of what we’ve been experiencing. The elevator only goes down.

Noah Smith rightly calls out the plague effect of neo-liberalism in a Bloomberg View column, detailing how many of those who supported politicians selling a bill of goods ended up getting hurt the worst. The most recent election would appear to be the coup de grâce. Trump isn’t the advent of a new con job but the culmination of the decades-old one.

As Smith writes, “there won’t be a quick fix for middle-class boomers and Gen Xers.”

An excerpt:

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, middle-class Americans looked forward to a future of wealth and leisure. If you were a small business owner, or an engineer, or a lawyer at a small firm, you might not have expected to be rolling in it, but you probably didn’t think things would go so badly awry.

Who’s responsible? Who took your prosperity? Donald Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro might tell you it was China, while his political aide Steve Bannon might tell you it was immigrants. Free-market think-tank types might tell you it was government regulation, while conservative lawmakers might tell you it was single moms on welfare or lazy people on food stamps. But these answers are mostly or completely wrong. 

One partially correct answer is that your prosperity was taken by the very people who promised to ensure and enhance it. The decades from 1980 through 2008 were the age of neoliberalism — the ideology of the free market. Financial deregulation, tax cuts and a lax attitude toward consumer protection and antitrust were supposed to free the entrepreneurial potential of the American middle class. And to some degree it did — those decades saw plenty of wealth creation, and the U.S. economy performed a bit better than most rich nations in Europe and East Asia.

But along with real productivity, the neoliberal age saw plenty of grift and middle-class wealth extraction. In the book, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Nobel prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller said that all free-market economies are accompanied by some amount of consumer error, simply because sellers are always exploring every possible method of parting people from their money.•

 

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It’s hard to know what to make of Bob Woodward, the less talented half of the twentieth-century’s most famous American reporting duo, in the new millennium. 

Like a lot of educated boneheads, he’s been an apologist for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, trusting the deeply dishonest Bush Administrations’ claim of Weapons of Mass Destruction, despite a real paucity of evidence. In 2013, he claimed the Obama Adminsitration had “threatened” him, though this seemed to be more fanciful than fact.

In addition to these two ass-backwards moments, during his 2008 appearance on 60 Minutes to promote his book The War Within, the journalist hinted at knowing about a mysterious new weapon developed by the U.S. military, one that was able to melt buses filled with terrorists from great distances. An excerpt:

“This is very sensitive and very top secret, but there are secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs,” Woodward told Pelley.

“But what are we talking about here? It’s some kind of surveillance? Some kind of targeted way of taking out just the people that you’re looking for?” Pelley asked.

“I’d love to go through the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied…. “If you were an al-Qaida leader … and you knew about what they were able to do, you’d get your ass outta town.”

It sounded to viewers like America had developed some sort of death ray, though it was probably something less dramatic. Who’s to say at this point with Woodward?

· · ·

In the early 1920s, an erstwhile serious British inventor named Harry Grindell-Matthews made a Tesla-ish claim, saying he’d created a death ray that had been perfected at the expense of rats. He was squirrely about demos, however, traveling to France and then America to keep one step ahead of the skeptics. For some reason, journalists of the era decided to support him against military and scientific establishments that were unconvinced by his assertions–and rightly so. 

An article in the July 20, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the sensational claims.


From 1924: “The Grindell-Matthews Death Ray, in the future, may control the destiny of the world.”

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Do you remember when Thomas Friedman wanted America to mouth-rape the Middle East?

There are those moments when you hear a talking head on TV say something so stupendously wrong-minded that it’s stunning. Since most of cable news is aimed at attention-grabbing shock, it’s not easy to stand out as a colossal bonehead, but it happens occasionally.

In 2010, Friedman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times tried to convince amnesiac readers that he had been in favor of the Iraq War because he hoped it would bring about democracy in that nation, one that would be supported and sustained by Iraqis themselves.

But he had a very different rationale in 2003 for his loud urging of an American invasion. That was when the columnist and best-selling author guested on the Charlie Rose Show to explain why the U.S. needed to go to war. The comments still stand out to me for their irrationality, immaturity and immorality. Every time Friedman tries to revise his reasons for being an Iraq War cheerleader, these statements should be brought up. An excerpt:

We needed to go over there, basically take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it.

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?’ You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.•

Friedman has now found a new use for our troops, none of whom happens to be his own children: participation in the invasion and occupation of Syria. In his latest column, the pundit details the chaos of the Trump White House which, early last week, loaned credibility to the Assad regime despite its chemical weapon attacks on its people, before deciding to bomb the country later in the week after fresh chemical offensives, which likely were encouraged by the Administration’s remarks of acceptance. Friedman wants to put that facacta Oval Office in charge of an occupation that will likely require thousands of our military personnel, even though it may have colluded with Russia to disrupt our election and certainly seems to suspiciously obsequious to the Kremlin.

Perhaps we should instead just open a McDonald’s in Aleppo so we can all enjoy everlasting peace?

From Friedman:

If you’re looking for a culprit for why America has refused to intervene in Syria, you have to look both to your left and to your right.

“The only obstacle to putting real U.S. military leverage into Syria is democracy in America,” explained the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.” “The American public simply does not want to spend the blood and treasure to produce what would probably be a less awful but still not good outcome in Syria.” And that is a byproduct of the failed George W. Bush interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alas, though, I now think doing nothing is a mistake. Just letting Assad keep trying to restore control over all of Syria will mean endless massacres. A negotiated power-sharing solution is impossible; there is no trust.

The least bad solution is a partition of Syria and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area — protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some U.S. troops. That should at least stop the killing — and the refugee flows that are fueling a populist-nationalist backlash all across the European Union.•

The opening of “Tom Friedman Is Calling for an Invasion of Syria. Trump Should Run the Other Way,” by Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

In many ways, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman personifies the glib id of the American foreign-policy establishment. Like most members of the foreign-policy “Blob,” he thinks almost everything that happens anywhere is a vital interest of the United States, and is therefore something for which American blood and treasure should be spilled if necessary. Like most Americans, he thinks our country always acts from noble motives, even if the results are (repeatedly) ignoble. Like many U.S. leaders, he rarely acknowledges his own mistakes. If his advice gets followed and things go wrong, then somebody else must have screwed up (like those incompetent Bushies who bungled the occupation of Iraq, or those ungrateful Iraqis who didn’t realize what a wonderful gift we had given them). And instead of learning from experience, he makes the same analytical mistakes over and over again. Hmm. Sounds like some very powerful countries I know.

Case in point: his column in Wednesday’s New York Times discussing the dilemmas President Donald Trump faces in Syria. Friedman correctly points out that a chemical attack by forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad has exposed Trump’s naiveté about the Syrian conflict. And he may even be right in suggesting that the Trump administration’s poorly orchestrated statements about tolerating the Assad regime — made devoid of any diplomatic context or as part of a genuine quid pro quo — may have encouraged Assad to think he could escalate the war with impunity. In criticizing Trump, Friedman is on firm ground.

Now that Trump has ordered cruise missile strikes on the airbase from which the chemical strikes were launched, you might think the president has learned quickly and shown how “flexible” he is (a point Trump emphasized in his own remarks to the press on Thursday). The problem is that these attacks are a purely symbolic act devoid of real strategic significance. They are the Trumpian equivalent of Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. They might deter Assad from further chemical weapons use, but they don’t alter the situation on the ground, don’t make Syrian civilians significantly safer, and don’t move us closer to a solution.

Friedman, however, has the answer. His advice — surprise, surprise! — is straight from the same Establishment playbook that has done so much to screw up the Middle East over the past two-plus decades.•

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Philip Zimbardo, the head warden of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a dress rehearsal of sorts for Abu Ghraib, has misgivings about his most infamous research, which featured 18 college-aged male students playing jailers and inmates in a scene that rapidly deteriorated, acknowledging mistakes were made. He still would do it all over again, however.

While the cruel exercise reminded us that humans, under just the right (or, more accurately, wrong) circumstances, can forget their decency, a species that needed to receive that memo just 26 years after the fall of Nazi Germany may be too plagued by a short-term memory to survive its worst instincts. 

In his more recent incarnation, Zimbardo has argued that technology is diminishing males, making guys receptacles for “porn, video games and Ritalin.” Sounds dubious. I don’t know that the geeks at Comic-Con are really what mainly ails us.

I suppose two examples, even such outsize ones, don’t equal a trend, but it would seem Zimbardo is very distrustful of young males, consistently believing them ready foot soldiers for one sort of evil or another. There’s some truth there, but it’s usually their elders who truly drive large-scale violence, conjuring up the sordid scenarios. 

In a Salon Q&A conducted by Chauncey DeVega, Zimbardo considers the danger of America’s resting bitch face, Donald Trump, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman who would undo democracy itself if permitted. The psychologist makes a lot of good points, though his rationale for maintaining that he would still go forward with the SPE if he had it to do all over again is positively Trump-ish: “It’s the most widely known experiment in psychological history,” he points out in defense.

An excerpt:

Question:

You are perhaps most well known for the Stanford Prison Experiment. In hindsight, how do you feel about it?  

Philip Zimbardo:

It’s the most widely known experiment in psychological history. I would do it again. Only I would not play the role of superintendent because in that role you get sucked into it. It was me and two students working around the clock. The prison is breaking down every day. There are parents visiting, parole board hearings, police and prison chaplains coming. There’s escape rumors. It was overwhelming. I know I could not have gone another week.    

Question:

What lessons do you think the Stanford Prison Experiment holds for American society at present?

Philip Zimbardo:

What was dramatic about the study was the rapidity and ease with which intelligent college students who were otherwise normal and healthy followed their roles as prisoners and guards. We gave them no clue of what it means to be a guard. You know, in our culture prison guards are people who have power over prisoners who have less power — except that prisoners have the power of numbers. Guards have to convince prisoners that even though there are fewer of them, they have the weapons; they have other means of power to suppress them. You make them feel helpless and ineffectual.

Question:

What scares you right now? What gives you hope? 

Philip Zimbardo:

Despite all the Trumpism, I’m optimistic about human nature that right will prevail over wrong. Heroism will prevail over evil. For me, again as an educator, it’s really important that teachers have to be anti-Trump in their own political mentality, their own morality. Whether or not they can present those political views in class, they can certainly prevent the Trump political views from being espoused. When kids act Trump-like, they can stop it cold. They can stop Trump-like bullying. They could call it for what it is.

I’m optimistic that Trump and his ideals will go away and people will laugh about it in the near future while saying, How could we have been so stupid?•

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Futurists often speak of an approaching if indeterminate time when we’ll enjoy radical abundance, with 3D printers spitting out cars and homes affordable to all and on-demand EVs charging pennies to ferry us around. That could happen.

Of course, we already have radical abundance, more than enough resources to feed, clothe, home and educate every person on the planet. Distribution, however, has been a problem. And the greater the bounty, the worse it seems to be divided.

Home Deus author Yuval Harari recently predicted to MarketWatch that the “greatest industry of the 21st century will probably be to upgrade human beings.”

This comment is several things:

  1. Probably not true.
  2. Quietly hopeful.
  3. Very worrisome.

On number 2: It suggests we’ll get to a much higher plane of technology, a time when, for better or worse, we can control evolution, which would mean we haven’t yet destroyed ourselves with more rudimentary tools or the emergent ones.

On number 3: If Harari is right, even if his prophecy is remarkably aggressive in its timeline of six or so decades, it will change wealth inequality in a fundamental way. The popular belief in recent decades about new tools has been best articulated by the economist Hal Varian: “A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today.” Would that still be true if, as the historian puts it, we’re talking about biotech remaking us into gods? The pattern that delivered computers and cell phones in short shrift from early adapters to the masses might not hold, the disparity never remedied.

From Jeremy Olsham at MarketWatch:

“The greatest industry of the 21st century will probably be to upgrade human beings,” historian Yuval Harari, author of the fascinating new book Homo Deus, told MarketWatch.

As new technologies yield humans with much longer battery lives, killer apps and godlike superpowers, within the next six decades, if Harari is right, even the finest human specimens of 2017 will in hindsight seem like flip phones.

There is, of course, a catch. Many of us will remain flip phones, as the technology to upgrade humans to iPhones is likely to be costly, and regulated differently around the world. These advances will likely “lead to greater income inequality than ever before,” Harari said. “For the first time in history it will be possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality.”

Such a divide could give rise to a new version of “old racist ideologies that some races are naturally superior to others,” Harari said. “Except this time the biological differences will be real, something that is engineered and manufactured.”•

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Nautilus has published its Consciousness issue, and one of the highlights is Steve Paulson’s Q&A with neuroscientist Christof Koch, which bubbles with bold ideas on the issue’s theme but also on related topics like evolution.

The subject argues that seeing the brain as analagous to a computer is a fraught enterprise, though he doesn’t wax poetic like a mystic about the existence of a soul made of some “special substance that can’t be tracked by science.” In a wider sense, he’s not romantic about humans: “We’re not the dominant species on the planet because we are wiser or swifter or more powerful. It’s because we’re more intelligent and ruthless.”

For all his skepticism about Homo sapiens, Koch retains a belief in the universe as “wonderful,” a place we can greatly enjoy if we don’t annihilate ourselves, a formidable challenge for a technological culture.

From an exchange about the existential threat of Strong AI:

Question:

You really believe artificial intelligence could develop a certain level of complexity and wipe us out?

Christof Koch:

This is independent of the question of computer consciousness. Yes, if you have an entity that has enough AI and deep machine learning and access to the Cloud, etc., it’s possible in our lifetime that we’ll see creatures that we can talk to with almost the same range of fluidity and depth of conversation that you and I have. Once you have one of them, you replicate them in software and you can have billions of them. If you link them together, you could get superhuman intelligence. That’s why I think it behooves all of us to think hard about this before it may be too late. Yes, there’s a promise of untold benefits, but we all know human nature. It has its dark side. People will misuse it for their own purposes.

Question:

How do we build in those checks to make sure computers don’t rule the world?

Christof Koch:

That’s a very good question. The only reason we don’t have a nuclear bomb in every backyard is because you can’t build it easily. It’s hard to get the material. It takes a nation state and tens of thousands of people. But that may be different with AI. If current trends accelerate, it may be that 10 programmers in Timbuktu could unleash something truly malevolent onto mankind. These days, I’m getting more pessimistic about the fate of a technological species such as ours. Of course, this might also explain the Fermi paradox.

Question:

Remind us what the Fermi paradox is.

Christof Koch:

We have yet to detect a single intelligent species, even though we know there are probably trillions of planets. Why is that? Well, one explanation is it’s just extremely unlikely for life to arise and we’re the only one. But I think a more likely possibility is that any time you get life that’s sufficiently complex, with advanced technology, it has somehow managed to annihilate itself, either by nuclear war or by the rise of machines.

Question:

You are a pessimist! You really think any advanced civilization is going to destroy itself?

Christof Koch:

If it’s very aggressive like ours and it’s based in technology.•

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It wasn’t the Jazz Singer, but Benito Mussolini agreed to star in a talkie when asked by Fox Movietone News to stand before the company’s motion-picture cameras and address the citizens of the United States. In the 80-second running time, Il Duce used the phrase “make America great.” 

This type of content helped the then-struggling Fox establish, in 1929, a newsreel theater in Times Square, which served as a forerunner to today’s cable outlets.

The Fascist leader, who understood the power of communications like few in his era, would endeavor within a decade of making this short to build his very own Hollywood. Today he would merely need to open his own Twitter account. Progress.

An article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the first foreign leader to have a speaking role on film.

Like most people who order assassins into a Malayasian airport to murder their half-brother with nerve agent, Kim Jong-un makes it difficult to examine his motivations with a sober head.

Historian Bruce Cumings attempts to do just that in an article in The Nation which explains the recent U.S. political bungling that allowed us to arrive at this scary precipice. There was a prime opportunity not even 20 years ago to have a nuke-free North Korea, but, alas, it was bungled by the Bush Administration. In the intervening period both sides of the aisle have ignored the meaning of this failure, exacerbating the situation. 

Now America’s guided by a deeply ignorant, unbalanced President who’s managed after much effort to finally locate one murderous despot he despises. So it’s game on, but it’s the most dangerous game.

An excerpt:

As I wrote for this magazine in January 2016, the North Koreans must be astonished to discover that US leaders never seem to grasp the import of their history-related provocations. Even more infuriating is Washington’s implacable refusal ever to investigate our 72-year history of conflict with the North; all of our media appear to live in an eternal present, with each new crisis treated as sui generis. Visiting Seoul in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another; in fact, President Bill Clinton got it to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994–2002) and, in October 2000, had indirectly worked out a deal to buy all of its medium- and long-range missiles. Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear “hostile intent” toward the other.

The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is rightly seen as a world-historical catastrophe, but next in line would be placing North Korea in his “axis of evil” and, in September 2002, announcing his “preemptive” doctrine directed at Iraq and North Korea, among others. The simple fact is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton’s agreements had been sustained.

Now comes Donald Trump, blasting into a Beltway milieu where, in recent months, a bipartisan consensus has emerged based on the false assumption that all previous attempts to rein in the North’s nuclear program have failed, so it may be time to use force—to destroy its missiles or topple the regime. …

A bigger lesson awaits Donald Trump, should he attack North Korea. It has the fourth-largest army in the world, as many as 200,000 highly trained special forces, 10,000 artillery pieces in the mountains north of Seoul, mobile missiles that can hit all American military bases in the region (there are hundreds), and nuclear weapons more than twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb (according to a new estimate in a highly detailed Times study by David Sanger and William Broad).•

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I’ve blogged before about Ross Perot’s McLuhan-ish dream circa 1969: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. His technologically friendly version of direct democracy hasn’t made a dent in the decades since, despite quantum leaps in hardware and software, even today when we all potentially hold a voting booth in our pockets. That’s probably for the best.

No, representative democracy did not keep us from Brexit or Trump, but our reality would probably be worse if we turned the vote into The Voice, permitting the populace instant gratification (without much consideration) in choosing our path forward. 

In his provocative post “How Trump and Bannon Could Automate Populism,” John Robb argues for direct democracy at the party level if not the national one, believing immediate interactions between the electorate and representatives will serve as a salve. I’m not so sure. For instance, the GOP is already fully aware that its bloc doesn’t want Obamacare repealed yet it hasn’t be that knowledge but rather dysfunction that’s so far prevented the tearing of that social safety net. It may be that our system is too corrupted at present for apps to make much of a difference. There are many critical questions about our politics, but I don’t know that technology is the correct answer to any of them.

Robb’s opening:

We live in a world where we can get nearly everything instantly.  

Instant information.  Instant entertainment.  Instant communications.  Instant transactions.    

Simply and rightly, we have come to expect our decisions to yield instant results from the systems that serve us.  

Well, that’s true for every system except our political system.    

We’re only allowed to interact with our political system, in a meaningful way, only once every two years and only then by filling out a multiple choice quiz in an election booth.  

That’s akin to an Internet that only available for a couple of hours every two years at 1,200 baud.   

It’s crazy in this day and age.  Worse, there’s increasing evidence it is driving us crazy.   We are filling the time in between these electoral events with around the clock political warfare.  A ceaseless drumbeat of outrage and conspiracy, amplified by the online echo chambers we spend our time in.

Fortunately, I don’t believe this disconnect will last long.   A form of direct democracy is coming.  One that lets people directly influence the decisions of the people they send to Washington.

A form of interactive democracy that doesn’t require any changes to the constitution since it works at the party level and not the national.  

When it does, it’s going to hit us fast, taking off like wildfire since it fulfills a fundamental need that the current system does not provide.•

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Behavioral science, which I just mentioned, is usually sold as a modern means of guiding us to healthier decisions about food and finances, among other areas, nudging us to do right rather than forcing us to. It’s billed as being avuncular rather than autocratic, paternalistic instead of despotic. 

Even if that’s so, the field’s application is still often fairly creepy, marked by manipulation. It’s real noble contribution would be to teach us about the biases we unwittingly possess and the flaws in our thought processes, so we could analyze them and overcome these failings in time through the development of better critical thinking. Perhaps we’re only in the Proterozoic period of the discipline, and that’s what the branch actually contributes in the long run. 

Until that more enlightened age, capitalism almost demands that abuses of the subject will be employed by enough players hoping to pad their bank accounts through “priming” and other predatory practices. Even if the efficacy of these methods is overstated, there’s still plenty of money to be made on the margins, prodding the more prone among us to purchase or politick in a particular way.

In a wonderfully thought-provoking New York Review of Books piece about Michael Lewis’ book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, philosopher Tamsin Shaw argues convincingly that the “pressures to exploit irrationalities rather than eliminate them are great.” An excerpt: 

In 2007, and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a masterclass in “Thinking About Thinking” to, among others, Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia).3 At the 2008 meeting, Richard Thaler also spoke about nudges, and in the clips we can view online he describes choice architectures that guide people toward specific behaviors but that can be reversed with one click if the subject doesn’t like the outcome. In Kahneman’s talk, however, he tells his assembled audience of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that “priming”—picking a suitable atmosphere—is one of the most important areas of psychological research, a technique that involves offering people cues unconsciously (for instance flashing smiley faces on a screen at a speed that makes them undetectable) in order to influence their mood and behavior. He insists that there are predictable and coherent associations that can be exploited by this sort of priming. If subjects are unaware of this unconscious influence, the freedom to resist it begins to look more theoretical than real.

The Silicon Valley executives clearly saw the commercial potential in these behavioral techniques, since they have now become integral to that sector. When Thaler and Sunstein last updated their nudges.org website in 2011, it contained an interview with John Kenny, of the Institute of Decision Making, in which he says:

You can’t understand the success of digital platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Farmville, Nike Plus, and Groupon if you don’t understand behavioral economic principles…. Behavioral economics will increasingly be providing the behavioral insight that drives digital strategy.

And Jeff Bezos of Amazon, in a letter to shareholders in April 2015, declared that Amazon sellers have a significant business advantage because “through our Selling Coach program, we generate a steady stream of automated machine-learned ‘nudges’ (more than 70 million in a typical week).” It is hard to imagine that these 70 million nudges leave Amazon customers with the full freedom to reverse, after conscious reflection, the direction in which they are being nudged.

Facebook, too, has embraced the behavioral insights described by Kahneman and Thaler, having received wide and unwanted publicity for researching priming. In 2012 its Core Data Science Team, along with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco, experimented with emotional priming on Facebook, without the awareness of the approximately 700,000 users involved, to see whether manipulation of their news feeds would affect the positivity or negativity of their own posts. When this came to light in 2014 it was generally seen as an unacceptable form of psychological manipulation. But Facebook defended the research on the grounds that its users’ consent to their terms of service was sufficient to imply consent to such experiments.•

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Fascinating article by the New York Times Technology section detailing how Uber and other Gig Economy giants are employing behavioral science to subtlely manipulate their workers into acting in the best interests of the companies. As the piece says: “Most of this happens without giving off a whiff of coercion.”

Businesses have forever tried to nudge consumers into buying their products, whether though legitimate means or the unethical kind (e.g., subliminal advertising), but using Digital Age tools to stealthily treat employees like lab rats is an altogether different thing. The “freedom” promised to contractors who toil in the piecemeal workforce isn’t really quite so free, and there are broader implications for the future.

An excerpt:

Even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

Uber’s innovations reflect the changing ways companies are managing workers amid the rise of the freelance-based “gig economy.” Its drivers are officially independent business owners rather than traditional employees with set schedules. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but means it cannot compel drivers to show up at a specific place and time. And this lack of control can wreak havoc on a service whose goal is to seamlessly transport passengers whenever and wherever they want.

Uber helps solve this fundamental problem by using psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work. It’s a quest for a perfectly efficient system: a balance between rider demand and driver supply at the lowest cost to passengers and the company.

Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.•

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