Science/Tech

You are currently browsing the archive for the Science/Tech category.

Probably because I came before smartphones, I often catch myself thinking of them as not exactly a fad but as future artifacts of a period that will ultimately pass. I’ll be happier once people stop staring at them in a daze, living inside them, once this epidemic has ended. It must be a temporary form of insanity. In those moments it seems similar to the opioid crisis.

Of course, that’s not going to work out as my fantasy would have it. The shape of the tool may change—perhaps disappear entirely—but we’ll come to realize belatedly that we were in their pockets all along, not the other way around.

James Cameron, a truly miserable man in so many ways, is right when he tells the Hollywood Reporter that the machines are already our overlords, the emergence of superintelligence not even necessary for the transition of power. Then again, living under even the most soul-crushing machines would probably be preferable than having to answer to Cameron. The interview of the director and Deadpool helmer Tim Miller was conducted by Matthew Belloni and Borys Kit. An excerpt:

Question:

The conflict between technology and humanity is a theme in a lot of Jim’s movies. Does technology scare you?

James Cameron:

Technology has always scared me, and it’s always seduced me. People ask me: “Will the machines ever win against humanity?” I say: “Look around in any airport or restaurant and see how many people are on their phones. The machines have already won.” It’s just [that] they’ve won in a different way. We are co-evolving with our technology. We’re merging. The technology is becoming a mirror to us as we start to build humanoid robots and as we start to seriously build AGI — general intelligence — that’s our equal. Some of the top scientists in artificial intelligence say that’s 10 to 30 years from now. We need to get the damn movies done before that actually happens! And when you talk to these guys, they remind me a lot of that excited optimism that nuclear scientists had in the ’30s and ’40s when they were thinking about how they could power the world. And taking zero responsibility for the idea that it would instantly be weaponized. The first manifestation of nuclear power on our planet was the destruction of two cities and hundreds of thousands of people. So the idea that it can’t happen now is not the case. It can happen, and it may even happen.

Tim Miller: 

Jim is a more positive guy [than I am] in the present and more cynical about the future. I know Hawking and Musk think we can put some roadblocks in there. I’m not so sure we can. I can’t imagine what a truly artificial intelligence will make of us. Jim’s brought some experts in to talk to us, and it’s really interesting to hear their perspective. Generally, they’re scared as shit, which makes me scared.

James Cameron:

One of the scientists we just met with recently, she said: “I used to be really, really optimistic, but now I’m just scared.” Her position on it is probably that we can’t control this. It has more to do with human nature. Putin recently said that the nation that perfects AI will dominate or conquer the world. So that pretty much sets the stage for “We wouldn’t have done it, but now those guys are doing it, so now we have to do it and beat them to the punch.” So now everybody’s got the justification to essentially weaponize AI. I think you can draw your own conclusions from that.

Tim Miller:

When it happens, I don’t think AI’s agenda will be to kill us. That seems like a goal that’s beneath whatever enlightened being that they’re going to become because they can evolve in a day what we’ve done in millions of years. And I don’t think that they have the built-in deficits that we have, because we’re still dealing with the same kind of urges that made us climb down from the trees and kill everybody else. I choose to believe that they’ll be better than us.•

Tags: , , ,

For a long time, Hugh Hefner was ahead of his time and behind the curve, progressive and regressive, a liberator and a jailer. He was right about America’s phony flirtation with Puritanism but was very pleased to uphold patriarchy to gain wealth and satisfy his lusts. His empire was always built on the backs—and other parts—of women, but his last decades, when he OD’d on silicone and Reality TV, were exceptionally sad. By then, the terminal playboy was just desperately trying to keep pace with a culture of titillation that left him behind for lower pastures.

Working in the fields of pornography and media from the 1950s forward, Hefner was bound to be branded again and again by the seismic technological shifts we’ve experienced with ever greater frequency. An orgiastic agoraphobic, he believed the future would look a lot like himself—homebound, wired to copious machines and pleasured by endless thrills. Below is a re-post that perfectly captures his mindset while he was in his prime.

____________________________

hugh-hefner-chicago-playboy-townhouse-bed

During the heyday of the Magazine Age, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

The mansion, grotto and Bunnies were to remain largely unattainable, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we each could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used five decades ago to extend his adolescence and recuse himself are now much more powerful and affordable. Hefner believed our new, personalized islands would be our homes, not our phones, but he was right in thinking that tools would make life more remote in some fundamental way.

In 1966, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hefner for her book, The Egotists. Her sharp introduction and the first exchange follow.

_________________________

First of all, the House. He stays in it as a Pharaoh in a grave, and so he doesn’t notice that the night has ended, the day has begun, a winter passed, and a spring, and a summer–it’s autumn now. Last time he emerged from the grave was last winter, they say, but he did not like what he saw and returned with great relief three days later. The sky was then extinguished behind the electronic gate, and he sat down again in his grave: 1349 North State Parkway, Chicago. But what a grave, boys! Ask those who live in the building next to it, with their windows opening onto the terrace on which the bunnies sunbathe, in monokinis or notkinis. (The monokini exists of panties only, the notkini consists of nothing.) Tom Wolfe has called the house the final rebellion against old Europe and its custom of wearing shoes and hats, its need of going to restaurants or swimming pools. Others have called it Disneyland for adults. Forty-eight rooms, thirty-six servants always at your call. Are you hungry? The kitchen offers any exotic food at any hour. Do you want to rest? Try the Gold Room, with a secret door you open by touching the petal of a flower, in which the naked girls are being photographed. Do you want to swim? The heated swimming pool is downstairs. Bathing suits of any size or color are here, but you can swim without, if you prefer. And if you go into the Underwater Bar, you will see the Bunnies swim as naked as little fishes. The House hosts thirty Bunnies, who may go everywhere, like members of the family. The pool also has a cascade. Going under the cascade, you arrive at the grotto, rather comfortable if you like to flirt; tropical plants, stereophonic music, drinks, erotic opportunities, and discreet people. Recently, a guest was imprisoned in the steam room. He screamed, but nobody came to help him. Finally, he was able to free himself by breaking down the door, and when he asked in anger, why nobody came to his help–hadn’t they heard his screams?–they answered, “Obviously. But we thought you were not alone.”

At the center of the grave, as at the center of a pyramid, is the monarch’s sarcophagus: his bed. It’s a large, round and here he sleeps, he thinks, he makes love, he controls the little cosmos that he has created, using all the wonders that are controlled by electronic technology. You press a button and the bed turns through half a circle, the room becomes many rooms, the statue near the fireplace becomes many statues. The statue portrays a woman, obviously. Naked, obviously. And on the wall there TV sets on which he can see the programs he missed while he slept or thought or made love. In the room next to the bedroom there is a laboratory with the Ampex video-tape machine that catches the sounds and images of all the channels; the technician who takes care of it was sent to the Ampex center in San Francisco. And then? Then there is another bedroom that is his office, because he does not feel at ease far from a bed. Here the bed is rectangular and covered with papers and photos and documentation on Prostitution, Heterosexuality, Sodomy. Other papers are on the floor, the chairs, the tables, along with tape recorders, typewriters, dictaphones. When he works, he always uses the electric light, never opening a window, never noticing the night has ended, the day begun. He wears pajamas only. In his pajamas, he works thirty-six hours, forty-eight hours nonstop, until he falls exhausted on the round bed, and the House whispers the news: He sleeps. Keep silent in the kitchen, in the swimming pool, in the lounge, everywhere: He sleeps.

He is Hugh Hefner, emperor of an empire of sex, absolute king of seven hundred Bunnies, founder and editor of Playboy: forty million dollars in 1966, bosoms, navels, behinds as mammy made them, seen from afar, close up, white, suntanned, large, small, mixed with exquisite cartoons, excellent articles, much humor, some culture, and, finally, his philosophy. This philosophy’s name is “Playboyism,” and, synthesized, it says that “we must not be afraid or ashamed of sex, sex is not necessarily limited to marriage, sex is oxygen, mental health. Enough of virginity, hypocrisy, censorship, restrictions. Pleasure is to be preferred to sorrow.” It is now discussed even by theologians. Without being ironic, a magazine published a story entitled “…The Gospel According to Hugh Hefner.” Without causing a scandal, a teacher at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that Playboyism is, in some ways, a religious movement: “That which the church has been too timid to try, Hugh Hefner…is attempting.”

We Europeans laugh. We learned to discuss sex some thousands of years ago, before even the Indians landed in America. The mammoths and the dinosaurs still pastured around New York, San Francisco, Chicago, when we built on sex the idea of beauty, the understanding of tragedy, that is our culture. We were born among the naked statues. And we never covered the source of life with panties. At the most, we put on it a few mischievous fig leaves. We learned in high school about a certain Epicurus, a certain Petronius, a certain Ovid. We studied at the university about a certain Aretino. What Hugh Hefner says does not make us hot or cold. And now we have Sweden. We are all going to become Swedish, and we do not understand these Americans, who, like adolescents, all of a sudden, have discovered that sex is good not only for procreating. But then why are half a million of the four million copies of the monthly Playboy sold in Europe? In Italy, Playboy can be received through the mail if the mail is not censored. And we must also consider all the good Italian husbands who drive to the Swiss border just to buy Playboy. And why are the Playboy Clubs so famous in Europe, why are the Bunnies so internationally desired? The first question you hear when you get back is: “Tell me, did you see the Bunnies? How are they? Do they…I mean…do they?!?” And the most severe satirical magazine in the U.S.S.R., Krokodil, shows much indulgence toward Hugh Hefner: “[His] imagination in indeed inexhaustible…The old problem of sex is treated freshly and originally…”

Then let us listen with amusement to this sex lawmaker of the Space Age. He’s now in his early forties. Just short of six feet, he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He eats once a day. He gets his nourishment essentially from soft drinks. He does not drink coffee. He is not married. He was briefly, and he has a daughter and a son, both teen-agers. He also has a father, a mother, a brother. He is a tender relative, a nepotist: his father works for him, his brother, too. Both are serious people, I am informed.

And then I am informed that the Pharaoh has awakened, the Pharaoh is getting dressed, is going to arrive, has arrived: Hallelujah! Where is he? He is there: that young man, so slim, so pale, so consumed by the lack of light and the excess of love, with eyes so bright, so smart, so vaguely demoniac. In his right hand he holds a pipe: in his left hand he holds a girl, Mary, the special one. After him comes his brother, who resembles Hefner. He also holds a girl, who resembles Mary. I do not know if the pipe he owns resembles Hugh’s pipe because he is not holding one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and, as on every Sunday afternoon, there is a movie in the grave. The Pharaoh lies down on the sofa with Mary, the light goes down, the movie starts. The Bunnies go to sleep and the four lovers kiss absentminded kisses. God knows what Hugh Hefner thinks about men, women, love, morals–will he be sincere in his nonconformity? What fun, boys, if I discover that he is a good, proper moral father of Family whose destiny is paradise. Keep silent, Bunnies. He speaks. The movie is over, and he speaks, with a soft voice that breaks. And, I am sure, without lying.

Oriana Fallaci:

A year without leaving the House, without seeing the sun, the snow, the rain, the trees, the sea, without breathing the air, do you not go crazy? Don’t you die with unhappiness?

Hugh Hefner:

Here I have all the air I need. I never liked to travel: the landscape never stimulated me. I am more interested in people and ideas. I find more ideas here than outside. I’m happy, totally happy. I go to bed when I like. I get up when I like: in the afternoon, at dawn, in the middle of the night. I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do. Soon, the house will be a little planet that does not prohibit but helps our relationships with the others. Is it not more logical to live as I do instead of going out of a little house to enter another little house, the car, then into another little house, the office, then another little house, the restaurant or the theater? Living as I do, I enjoy at the same time company and solitude, isolation from society and immediate access to society. Naturally, in order to afford such luxury, one must have money. But I have it. And it’s delightful.•

Should the machines come for our jobs, not everyone will be able to shift into a rewarding career as a Zumba instructor. Someone will actually have to be in the Zumba class. That Zumba ain’t gonna do itself.

Luckily the Flow Industry is here to provide good jobs. As Casey Schwartz writes in a smart NYT Style piece “How to Hack Your Brain (for $5,000),” some are making a killing selling a “brain-shifting” system that allegedly allows people to “upgrade their nervous systems” and live in the moment. A former Esalen instructor named Jamie Wheal is a leader among the Flow educators, peddling the process with anti-Information Age fervor that ultimately sounds suspiciously like a slick Silicon Valley sales pitch, what with its promises of “hacking” and “optimization.” He hopes to increasingly marry the meditative method to neuroscience and heighten the results.

At present, his shoeless acolytes attend multi-day summits in Utah, listen to lectures in a white dome (“Flow Dojo”), do light exercise, engage in hyperventilation, live temporarily in tents and use centrally located porta-potties, which makes it possible for them to avoid shitting on the ground. It may seem like I’m making fun of those seeking to raise their consciousness—and I am!—but I also have a soft spot for people trying to comprehend the world at an off-center angle, if not for the ones charging thousands a head to “change minds.”

An excerpt:

But what is flow?

First popularized decades ago by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an elusive state cultivated by artists, athletes and others, that of being so absorbed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time and thought, finding themselves guided rather by instinct and intuition. It has also been referred to as the Zone — not to be confused with the diet of the same name — or just “being in the moment.” And for those who have experienced it, there is no denying its magic.
 
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, who turns 83 this month, is a deeply philosophical academic formerly of the University of Chicago (now at Claremont Graduate University) and still publishing. In 2004 he gave a Ted Talk that has been viewed over four million times.

Mr. Wheal has taken a somewhat brisker, more commercial approach. He has advised members of the United States Navy Special Operations, top-ranked athletes and executives of technology companies on “optimizing performance” through flow, receiving six-figure fees for some of his consultations.

His five-day retreat, at a sprawling, privately held property known as Summit and convened the day before the solar eclipse, cost almost $5,000 and was a sort of beta test for spreading his gospel to a larger public audience. (He also offers free assessments and videos on his website.)

Attendees were housed in white tepee-like tents, with portable toilets set up down a dirt path. The camp had been erected quickly by the “glamping” company Aether Camp, to Mr. Wheal’s specifications.

Mr. Wheal, who said his father was a test pilot for the British royal navy, came to the United States from England at age 8 and speaks rapidly in a mash-up accent, dropping idiosyncratic phrases and erudite references to the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, to Cincinnatus and Aldous Huxley. At moments he is given to phrases that are not immediately comprehensible, like “We are broaching the possibility of midwifing humanity into the infinite game.”

But his larger message came through clearly. In our digital age, loud with bottom-feeder commentary, the ping of incoming emails and bleating social media, the pursuit of flow is all the more urgent.

“Honestly, have we abdicated our purpose just because of these insistent micro asks?” Mr. Wheal said. “Have we just completely ceded our center, completely ceded clarity, and it was all just based on 20-something bro-grammers trying to crack our attention spans?”

To fulfill his flow-finding mission, Mr. Wheal wants to bring what he calls his Dojo Domes to locations around the world.•

Tags:

Anthony Fiala, right, with Theodore Roosevelt in Brazil in 1914.


Long before astronauts were chowing down of pilled and tubed food and Silicon Valley was taken with the idea of Soylent, Anthony Fiala, an American chemist and explorer who’d made his way to the Arctic and the Amazon, believed that beef-juice chewing gum and other odd deliveries of nutrition were the wave of the future, especially for wanderers like himself who didn’t have time to be foragers. From the July 8, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Tags:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and for not quite 200 years we’ve been investing heavily in the narrative of nation-states, discrete bodies with closed borders, certified citizens and localized laws. The World Federalist movement in the U.S. in the middle of last century was just one of the challenges to this orthodoxy, and like the rest, it didn’t go very far. Is the nation-state simply the natural order of things even if it was only recently invented, or is it a passing fancy?

· · ·

In the first few days of 2015, Jamie Bartlett published “Cover of Darkness,” an Aeon article which takes a counterintuitive approach to government surveillance in the Internet Age, believing that online anonymity will increase, the mouse outrunning the cat. My response:

I think he’s right to an extent. No legislation is going to stop corporations and governments from trying to track and commodify us, but media becomes more decentralized over time, and the number of info hacks, leaks and countermeasures will continue to proliferate. “While that’s broadly good for liberty, it may be more a boon to terrorists and trolls than you and I.”

I couldn’t have known at the time how soon that comment would detonate.

· · ·

Returning in part to that theme, Bartlett has now written “Return of the City-State” for the same publication, another smart essay which wonders whether mass migration to the Internet has made it plausible that the nation will vanish. While I agree that online “nations” like Facebook and Google and Twitter have posed serious challenges to borders—just look at Brexit and our Presidential election—and weakened central governance, I think in the foreseeable future we will probably have the best and worst of both systems, actual nation-states and virtual ones, as people look for myriad ways to safeguard themselves in an increasingly anarchic society. Also factor in the immense resources it will take to combat climate change and remodel and rebuild an increasingly wide swath of areas that will become weather danger zones, something smaller governmental models can’t readily manage.

· · ·

Seasteaders, for instance, may find the waters rough. Especially when one of the main backers of this nouveau city-state concept is Peter Thiel, a “genius” who was sure there WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a wonderful President. The problem isn’t always the world as it has already been built, but that human beings inhabit that world and our flaws can negatively impact a large nation or a small island and anything in between. 

· · ·

I doubt nation-states are endangered—though they will be challenged and forced to adapt.

From Bartlett:

There were only tens of millions of people online in 1995 when the nation-state was last declared dead. In 2015, that number had grown to around 3 billion; by 2020, it will be more than 4 billion. (And more than 20 billion internet-connected devices.) Digital technology doesn’t really like the nation-state. John Perry Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (1996) sums it up well: the internet is a technology built on libertarian principles. Censorship-free, decentralised and borderless. And now ubiquitous.

This is an enormous pain for the nation-state in all sorts of ways. It’s now possible for the British National Health Service to be targeted by ransomware launched in North Korea, and there are few ways to stop it or bring perpetrators to justice. App technology such as Uber and Deliveroo has helped to produce a sudden surge in the gig economy, which is reckoned to cost the government £3.5 billion a year by 2020-1. There are already millions of people using bitcoin and blockchain technologies, explicitly designed to wrestle control of the money supply from central banks and governments, and their number will continue to grow. It’s also infusing us with new values, ones that are not always national in nature: a growing number of people see themselves as ‘global’ citizens.

That’s not even the worst of it. On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century. If the EU struggles to control its borders when 1.2 million people move, what would happen if 200 million do? The lesson of history – real, long-lens human history – is that people move, and when they do, it’s hard to stop.

This is the crux of the problem: nation-states rely on control. If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others.•

Tags:

There are numerous financial and practical reasons for turning society into a giant, tentacled computer that connect us all, but even if mass surveillance and other elements of governmental and corporate fascism aren’t the chief driving forces of the transition, their danger is no less real. My main issue with the febrile fear of Strong AI—computers surpassing our brains and turning us into zoo animals or some such thing—is that this outcome is likely not happening today or tomorrow or perhaps ever, even if it isn’t theoretically impossible.

The bigger issue is that no such superintelligence need develop for humans to be diminished or doomed. Weak AI can do us in with a thousand cuts. The process of computerizing absolutely everything has already begun in earnest, and it hasn’t thus far made us better or wiser or happier. That may be because our best intentions have failed, but more likely is that this new system of digital capitalism has its own agenda and human well-being isn’t job one.

From Ian Bogost’s Atlantic article “You Are Already Living Inside a Computer“:

Newer dreams of what’s to come predict that humans and machines might meld, either through biohacking or simulated consciousness. That future also feels very far away—and perhaps impossible. Its remoteness might lessen the fear of an AI apocalypse, but it also obscures a certain truth about machines’ role in humankind’s destiny: Computers already are predominant, human life already plays out mostly within them, and people are satisfied with the results. …

Think about the computing systems you use every day. All of them represent attempts to simulate something else. Like how Turing’s original thinking machine strived to pass as a man or woman, a computer tries to pass, in a way, as another thing. As a calculator, for example, or a ledger, or a typewriter, or a telephone, or a camera, or a storefront, or a café.

After a while, successful simulated machines displace and overtake the machines they originally imitated. The word processor is no longer just a simulated typewriter or secretary, but a first-order tool for producing written materials of all kinds. Eventually, if they thrive, simulated machines become just machines.

Today, computation overall is doing this. There’s not much work and play left that computers don’t handle. And so, the computer is splitting from its origins as a means of symbol manipulation for productive and creative ends, and becoming an activity in its own right. Today, people don’t seek out computers in order to get things done; they do the things that let them use computers.

* * *

When the use of computers decouples from its ends and becomes a way of life, goals and problems only seem valid when they can be addressed and solved by computational systems. Internet-of-things gadgets offer one example of that new ideal. Another can be found in how Silicon Valley technology companies conceive of their products and services in the first place.•

Tags:

I was critical last month of a line in a Nick Bilton article I otherwise liked. The Vanity Fair “Hive” writer offered this assessment of Mark Zuckerberg: “His skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” I don’t think that’s so, and even if it were, the Facebook co-founder, multi-billionaire and perhaps Presidential aspirant wouldn’t likely be suited for the role. Despite his stated goal to divest himself of nearly his entire fortune to causes bettering humanity, Zuck has been from the start a morally dubious person who knowingly rose to prominence on the back of a company dedicated to mass surveillance, surreptitious “social experiments” and profiting from neo-Nazi social networking. The dishonest narrative about Facebook being a means of improving the world makes the reality worse. The company has always been about the accumulation of money and power.

It’s not that there’s no hope for Zuckerberg. There have been few bigger assholes than Bill Gates during his Microsoft heyday, and now the sweater-clad 2.0 version is actually eradicating diseases. (Truth be told, however, several people I’ve met who work for the Gates Foundation still don’t have great things to say about him as a boss.) But the social network CEO’s nation-wide “listening tour” and photo-ops in cow pastures and on shrimp boats aren’t convincing evidence he’s learned from mistakes, nor was his recent “Building Global Community” manifesto, which essentially just promised more of the same. Like many Facebook users, Zuckerberg seems to be presenting an image of what he’d like people to see rather than what’s really there. 

In the two excerpts below, Bilton takes a more skeptical look at Facebook in wake of this week’s anti-Semitic advertising scandal, and Matt Haig of the Guardian argues that social media is an unhappiness-making machine.

______________________________

From Bilton:

Since the election (and even leading up to it), it’s become abundantly clear that social media presented itself as a profoundly useful tool for the Russians, extremists, and possiblyeven people within the Trump campaign, to potentially disfigure our electoral process. Before Trump co-opted the term “fake news” to describe entirely accurate, if unfavorable, stories about him, real fake news was being created and proliferated at scale. Algorithms on Facebook didn’t work to try to stop this from happening, but rather to ensure that these fake stories landed right on the digital doorsteps of the people who might find them most interesting, and who might change their votes as a result of that content. Twitter’s problem with political bots has existed for as long as I can remember. Earlier this year,a data researcher noticedthat there were hundreds of Twitter accounts ending with a string of eight numbers (like @DavidJo52951945) that only tweeted about hot-button political topics, all of which followed each other. This might seem harmless on some level, but these accounts had been disseminating incredibly divisive (and oftentimes fake) stories about Brexit, Ukraine, and Syria, plus anti-immigration articles from outlets like Breitbart and excessively schismatic articles from the Daily Mail. The researcher also found that these accounts only tweetedbetween 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Moscow time, and only during the week—almost as if it were someone’s job in Russia to do so. The accounts have tens of thousands of followers, and the suspected propagandists behind themstoked the flames of dissentby creating far-left bots which would go after Trump and his supporters.

I don’t actually see these issues as massive problems within themselves. Of course people are going to try to manipulate these technologies. The larger issue, however, is that these enormous, profoundly wealthy companies aren’t doing enough to stop them, and are not being held accountable. (Twitter andFacebookhave attempted to crackdown on trolls in some ways since the election.) Curiously, Wall Street, which still remains oddly buoyant in the Trump era (it’s amazing what the rich will sacrifice for tax reform) is not chastising Silicon Valley for the extensive role it played in the mess we find ourselves in today. Facebook is worth $491 billion, despite months’ worth of news stories indicating it allowed Russian accounts to buy and target pages and adson its network during the election, which estimates say could have reached 70 million Americans. Twitter’s stock, while bumpy, has barely moved since news definitively broke about all of the“fake Americans”that Russia created and operated on the social network during the election. (Here’s a fun game: go look at Donald Trump’s latest followers on Twitter and see how long it takes you to find a real human being who has recently joined and followed him. Most accounts have names like @N4wapWLVHmeYKAq and @Aiana37481266.)

Earlier this week, Sam Biddle argued on The Intercept that Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to go before Congress about the role Facebook played in Russia’s propaganda efforts. “Zuckerberg should publicly testify under oath before Congress on his company’s capabilities to influence the political process, be it Russian meddling or anything else,” Biddle wrote. “If the company is as powerful as it promises advertisers, it should be held accountable.” There are also reports that there is now a “red-hot” focus on social media by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. But in both of these instances, there needs to be real consequences. It doesn’t take 20,000 employees to see the apathy and neglect these platforms have played, and continue to play, in the attacks against democracy by the people who want to see it fall.•

______________________________

From Haig:

Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.

And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.

The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed.•

Tags: , ,

“Perhaps it’s the case that in order to live, we must process our experience first rationally and then irrationally,” Wallace Shawn has written. We still have a long way to go in 2017 with the Step One of that process in regard to our priorities and politics, but the playwright has, in his last two works, tried to “irrationally” address the rise of technology and authoritarianism. Despite promising premises, however, neither Grasses of a Thousand Colors nor Evening at the Talk House develop in profound ways.

Another dramatist, Jordan Harrison, has come much closer to processing these issues potently in a couple of his plays: Marjorie Prime, which thinks about the enhanced near-future of Virtual Reality, and Maple & Vine, which imagines a retreat from our connected technological society to a village that recreates the 1950s, a quaint place marked by repression and racism. Taken together, these works remind that we must go forward into a fraught tomorrow, can’t go back to a yesterday not nearly as bright as it might seem from a distance, but our tools will be powerful and we need to try our best to limit the damage they can do. One challenge will be that while the future arrives more quickly now than it once did, the process of getting there has fewer bumps and seams. It looks benign.

As Chelsea Manning writes in a New York Times op-ed: “The world has become like an eerily banal dystopian novel. Things look the same on the surface, but they are not.” Every now and then, with the Russian invasion during the election and today’s news that Facebook has been selling ads to people interested in the phrases “Jew hater” and “How to Burn Jews,” it becomes obvious that things have gone seriously awry, but we hardly noticed as we were building this Trojan horse inside our own gates. What to do now?

From Manning:

The real power of mass data collection lies in the hand-tailored algorithms capable of sifting, sorting and identifying patterns within the data itself. When enough information is collected over time, governments and corporations can use or abuse those patterns to predict future human behavior. Our data establishes a “pattern of life” from seemingly harmless digital residue like cellphone tower pings, credit card transactions and web browsing histories.

The consequences of our being subjected to constant algorithmic scrutiny are often unclear. For instance, artificial intelligence — Silicon Valley’s catchall term for deepthinking and deep-learning algorithms — is touted by tech companies as a path to the high-tech conveniences of the so-called internet of things. This includes digital home assistants, connected appliances and self-driving cars.

Simultaneously, algorithms are already analyzing social media habits, determining creditworthiness, deciding which job candidates get called in for an interview and judging whether criminal defendants should be released on bail. Other machine-learning systems use automated facial analysis to detect and track emotions, or claim the ability to predict whether someone will become a criminal based only on their facial features.

These systems leave no room for humanity, yet they define our daily lives. When I began rebuilding my life this summer, I painfully discovered that they have no time for people who have fallen off the grid — such nuance eludes them. I came out publicly as transgender and began hormone replacement therapy while in prison. When I was released, however, there was no quantifiable history of me existing as a transwoman. Credit and background checks automatically assumed I was committing fraud. My bank accounts were still under my old name, which legally no longer existed. For months I had to carry around a large folder containing my old ID and a copy of the court order declaring my name change. Even then, human clerks and bank tellers would sometimes see the discrepancy, shrug and say “the computer says no” while denying me access to my accounts.

Such programmatic, machine-driven thinking has become especially dangerous in the hands of governments and the police.

In recent years our military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have merged in unexpected ways. They harvest more data than they can possibly manage, and wade through the quantifiable world side by side in vast, usually windowless buildings called fusion centers.

Such powerful new relationships have created a foundation for, and have breathed life into, a vast police and surveillance state. Advanced algorithms have made this possible on an unprecedented level. Relatively minor infractions, or “microcrimes,” can now be policed aggressively. And with national databases shared among governments and corporations, these minor incidents can follow you forever, even if the information is incorrect or lacking context.•

Tags:

It’s been clear for some time that Julian Assange is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, gleefully enabling a nation that murders the political opponents and journalistic critics of the sitting dictator and hacks foreign elections in numerous ways. The Wikileaks founder is an evil man working in the service of an autocracy, not a champion of rights.

But what of Edward Snowden, whom Assange helped shepherd to Russia after his NSA theft? Is he a righteous whistleblower, as Daniel Ellsberg and Freeman Dyson, among other big thinkers, believe he is? Is he a foolish pawn playing in a game far beyond his capabilities? Is he actually deep into Kremlin espionage? Considering his support for Assange and his equivocations regarding Russia’s nefarious role in the U.S. Presidential election, the latter possibility must at least be pondered.

My initial impression four years ago when Snowden first came to global prominence was that his efforts toward safeguarding privacy, whatever his motivations, were going to meet with failure. These technologies were far beyond taming, were becoming permanent parts of society. Retreat from them was unlikely even if the will was there–and I don’t think it was then or is now. 

In 2013, I wrote:

I haven’t really looked at Edward Snowden as hero or villain from the beginning of the NSA leak controversy. Just a cog in a new machine that American media and citizenry can’t seem to fully comprehend–the machine we’re all living in now. Privacy as we knew it–for individuals, corporations and government–has been permanently left in the past. Everybody’s watching everybody, and it will only get easier to spy. And to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, this would be a really good time for a teachable moment, for a frank discussion about the way our society is now, how some things have disappeared into the cloud.

But when you take temporary refuge in Russia, as Snowden has, with that country’s brutal and murderous recent history of oppression of journalists and surveillance of its own citizens, you’ve pretty much permanently ceded the moral high ground.•

Snowden still stews in exile in Moscow as Putin’s murderous reign continues, even accelerates, and as our world becomes ever more connected and intrusive. The opening of a Spiegel interview with him conducted by Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Spiegel: 

Mr. Snowden, four years ago, you appeared in a video from a hotel room in Hong Kong. It was the beginning of the biggest leak of intelligence data in history. Today, we are sitting in a hotel room in Moscow. You are not able to leave Russia because the United States government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services’ global surveillance machine is still running, probably faster than ever. Was it all really worth it?

Edward Snowden: 

The answer is yes. Look at what my goals were. I wasn’t trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed

Spiegel: 

But those people see you as their biggest enemy today.

Edward Snowden: 

My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don’t drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies.

Spiegel: 

What did you achieve?

 

Edward Snowden: 

Since summer 2013, the public has known what was until then forbidden knowledge. That the U.S. government can get everything out of your Gmail account and they don’t even need a warrant to do it if you are not an American but, say, a German. You are not allowed to discriminate between your citizens and other peoples’ citizens when we are talking about the balance of basic rights. But increasingly more countries, not only the U.S., are doing this. I wanted to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be.•

Tags: , ,

The tick-tick-ticking at the beginning of 60 Minutes is the sound of a stopwatch, but it may as well be a time bomb. It’s not that television news in America wouldn’t have become entertainment without Don Hewitt’s brainchild, this season marking its fiftieth year on the air, but the show played an outsize role in that transformation, proving that the news division could be a prime-time ratings winner and a money maker, even if it needed to create pseudo-events on a regular basis to do so. You could say it was one of the three factors that most enabled where we are now, along with the Reagan Administration dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine and the Murdoch-Ailes establishment of Fox, the proto-Fake News. 

That Hewitt dreamed of a career in show biz and Mike Wallace essentially had his start in that world doesn’t seem incidental to what they created on Sunday nights, with the journalist often battering a patsy opponent and villain in a way that was reminiscent of professional wrestling, while his boss edited the piece for maximum impact. It was so much fun, but should it have been? Fred Friendly, Hewitt’s original boss at CBS, didn’t think so, and he was probably right. The program has turned out plenty of good content and isn’t directly responsible for the Glenn Becks, Ann Coulters and Alex Joneses, but the slope it was built upon was surely a slippery one.

The opening of a piece from the show’s current Executive Producer Jeff Fager’s book, Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, which was adapted for Vanity Fair:

Fifty years is an eternity in the television world. The average show lasts about two and a half. But this fall 60 Minutes kicks off a half-century on-air. Many factors have helped sustain the broadcast over five decades, but a lot of them can be traced all the way back to the program’s conception. It’s an unlikely story because there never would have been a 60 Minutes if its creator, Don Hewitt, hadn’t been fired back in 1965.

In 1948 when Hewitt joined CBS, then largely a radio network, he was in awe of the people around him, particularly “the Murrow Boys”—the gentlemen correspondents who filed World War II dispatches under the watchful eye of Edward R. Murrow, the man who would become the dean of broadcast news and the paragon of journalistic integrity. The Murrow Boys were elegant and battle-tested and knew how to write a story and deliver it on the radio.

Don wasn’t one of them, and he knew it. He was a feisty kid from New Rochelle, New York, who never got a college degree. Growing up, he had always wanted to be in show business. His two childhood heroes were fictional characters from Broadway: Julian Marsh, the theater director in the musical 42nd Street,and Hildy Johnson, the star police-beat reporter in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper comedy, The Front Page.

Even so, Don joined CBS with some journalistic cred. During the war, he’d written for Stars and Stripes, the daily paper of the U.S. military. But it wasn’t reporting that got him most excited; it was lights and action.•

Tags: ,

Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. Yes, he was often thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way.

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!

The problem with America worrying about the existential risks of AI is that losing the race to AI is also an existential risk. If we invest correctly in the future (not just Artificial Intelligence but also solar and supercomputers) while providing enough infrastructure projects and social safety nets to keep afloat those displaced (hopefully temporarily) by our transition into the Digital Age, the country shouldn’t fall behind China or any other state. Of course, we’re so politically confused and toxic right now that such a scenario seems possible though not plausible. If China should win this arms race and Space Race rolled into one, the authoritarian nation will have the military heft and soft power to shape the world.

Daniel Kliman and Harry Krejsa worry about this dark potential in “Is China Leaping Past Us?” a Politico piece about this Sputnik Moment 2.0:

Its companies are attempting to acquire U.S. firms in key advanced technology sectors like semiconductor development and manufacturing. Chinese corporations have also opened research centers in the United States to tap American talent, and made early-stage investments in American startups focused on cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. A small Silicon Valley venture might find access to their intellectual property a minor price to pay for a game-changing capital infusion.

Failing to address China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology will have far-reaching consequences. The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property estimates that piracy, theft, and counterfeiting by China costs the U.S. economy between $225 billion and $600 billion a year, or up to 3 percent of the entire U.S. GDP. In the long term, the costs only grow more daunting. If scientific advances in quantum communications, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, energy, and battery technology increasingly move to China, so will the future industries – and jobs – that will accompany them. Moreover, future U.S. military advantage depends on America’s continued technological leadership. If China outpaces the United States in innovation, loss of America’s military edge in the Asia-Pacific, if not globally, could follow.•

No matter who is the victor, or if several nations are, the future we’re creating is a machine that will swallow up our privacy and attempt to quantify, surveil and commodify us ceaselessly. And no one will be able to hop over the sensors or hit an OFF switch. In a smart New York Times op-ed “These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised,” Nicholas Carr believes our warm welcome of these nascent ambient technologies, as the robots become shapeless and ubiquitous, speaks to our narcissism, which is certainly so. But I think it may be more than that. Religion may have declined, but our fear of being alone on a spinning, jagged rock remains as strong as ever.

An excerpt:

Although they may not look like the robots we envisioned, smart speakers do have antecedents in our cultural fantasy life. The robot they most recall at the moment is HAL, the chattering eyeball in Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But their current form — that of a stand-alone gadget — is not likely to be their ultimate form. They seem fated to shed their physical housing and turn into a sort of ambient digital companion. Alexa will come to resemble Samantha, the “artificially intelligent operating system” that beguiles the Joaquin Phoenix character in the movie “Her.” Through a network of speakers, microphones and sensors scattered around our homes, we’ll be able to converse with our solicitous A.I. assistants wherever and whenever we like.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook C.E.O., spent much of last year programming a prototype of such a virtual agent. In a video released in December, he gave a demo of the system. Walking around his Silicon Valley home, he conducted a running dialogue with his omnipresent chatbot, calling on it to supply him with a clean T-shirt and toast bread for his breakfast, play movies and music, and entertain his infant daughter. Hooked up to cameras with facial-recognition software, the digitized Jeeves also acted as a sentry for the Zuckerberg compound, screening visitors and unlocking the gate.

Whether real or fictional, robots hold a mirror up to society. If Rosie and her kin embodied a 20th-century yearning for domestic order and familial bliss, smart speakers symbolize our own, more self-absorbed time.

It seems apt that as we come to live more of our lives virtually, through social networks and other simulations, our robots should take the form of disembodied avatars dedicated to keeping us comfortable in our media cocoons. Even as they spy on us, the devices offer sanctuary from the unruliness of reality, with all its frictions and strains.•

Tags: , ,

Penny Lane, or some place like it, used to be in our ears and in our eyes. Not so much in the twenty-first century. Now your head is supposed to be inside your phone, while sensors, cameras and computers aim to unobtrusively extract information from you.

These robots do not resemble us at all, so there’s no uncanny valley—you’re not meant to detect any dips. As cars become driverless and the Internet of Things proliferates, there will be no opting out, no covering up. As Leonard Cohen groaned in 1992, just three years after Tim Berners-Lee unwittingly gifted us with a Trojan Horse, which we gleefully wheeled inside the gates: “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code / Your private life will suddenly explode.” 

Three excerpts follow.

_______________________

The opening of the Economist article “What Machines Can Tell From Your Face“:

The human face is a remarkable piece of work. The astonishing variety of facial features helps people recognise each other and is crucial to the formation of complex societies. So is the face’s ability to send emotional signals, whether through an involuntary blush or the artifice of a false smile. People spend much of their waking lives, in the office and the courtroom as well as the bar and the bedroom, reading faces, for signs of attraction, hostility, trust and deceit. They also spend plenty of time trying to dissimulate.

Technology is rapidly catching up with the human ability to read faces. In America facial recognition is used by churches to track worshippers’ attendance; in Britain, by retailers to spot past shoplifters. This year Welsh police used it to arrest a suspect outside a football game. In China it verifies the identities of ride-hailing drivers, permits tourists to enter attractions and lets people pay for things with a smile. Apple’s new iPhone is expected to use it to unlock the homescreen (see article).

Set against human skills, such applications might seem incremental. Some breakthroughs, such as flight or the internet, obviously transform human abilities; facial recognition seems merely to encode them. Although faces are peculiar to individuals, they are also public, so technology does not, at first sight, intrude on something that is private. And yet the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust.

The final frontier

Start with privacy.•

_______________________

From “The Next Challenge for Facial Recognition Is Identifying People Whose Faces Are Covered,” a James Vincent Verge piece:

The challenge of recognizing people when their faces are covered is one that plenty of teams are working on — and making quick progress.

Facebook, for example, has trained neural networks that can recognize people based on characteristics like hair, body shape, and posture. Facial recognition systems that work on portions of the face have also been developed (although, again; not ready for commercial use). And there are other, more exotic methods to identify people. AI-powered gait analysis, for example, can recognize individuals with a high degree of accuracy, and even works with low-resolution footage — the sort you might get from a CCTV camera.

One system for identifying masked individuals developed at the University of Basel in Switzerland recreates a 3D model of the target’s face based on what it can see. Bernhard Egger, one of the scientists behind the work, told The Verge that he expected “lots of development” in this area in the near future, but thought that there would always be ways to fool the machine. “Maybe machines will outperform humans on very specific tasks with partial occlusions,” said Egger. “But, I believe, it will still be possible to not be recognized if you want to avoid this.”

Wearing a rigid mask that covers the whole face, for example, would give current facial recognition systems nothing to go on. And other researchers have developed patterned glasses that are specially designed to trick and confuse AI facial recognition systems. Getting clear pictures is also difficult. Egger points out that we’re used to facial recognition performing quickly and accurately, but that’s in situations where the subject is compliant — scanning their face with a phone, for example, or at a border checkpoint.

Privacy advocates, though, say even if these systems have flaws, they’re still likely to be embraced by law enforcement.•

_______________________

From “How Apple Is Putting Voices in Users’ Heads—Literally,” a Steven Levy Wired story about Apple technology that could be a boon for the hearing impaired—and, potentially, a bane for all of us:

Merging medical technology like Apple’s is a clear benefit to those needing hearing help. But I’m intrigued by some observations that Dr. Biever, the audiologist who’s worked with hearing loss patients for two decades, shared with me. She says that with this system, patients have the ability to control their sound environment in a way that those with good hearing do not—so much so that she is sometimes envious. How cool would it be to listen to a song without anyone in the room hearing it? “When I’m in the noisiest of rooms and take a call on my iPhone, I can’t hold my phone to ear and do a call,” she says. “But my recipient can do this.”

This paradox reminds me of the approach I’m seeing in the early commercial efforts to develop a brain-machine interface: an initial focus on those with cognitive challenges with a long-term goal of supercharging everyone’s brain. We’re already sort of cyborgs, working in a partnership of dependency with those palm-size slabs of glass and silicon that we carry in our pockets and purses. The next few decades may well see them integrated subcutaneously.

I’m not suggesting that we all might undergo surgery to make use of the tools that Apple has developed. But I do see a future where our senses are augmented less invasively. Pulling out a smartphone to fine-tune one’s aural environment (or even sending vibes to a brain-controlled successor to the iPhone) might one day be as common as tweaking bass and treble on a stereo system.•

Tags: ,

Silicon Valley powerhouses would like to have it both ways: More surveillance of you and less transparency for them. You will be tagged, monitored and commodified, and they will be free from regulations. That’s what technology wants—or at least what technologists want.

Whether it’s Larry Page dreaming of a partitioned parcel where he can conduct dangerous experiments or Peter Thiel actually bankrolling unauthorized herpes vaccine tests on humans in St. Kitts, these billionaires believe laws created to protect us from people just like them are a hindrance.

Because Americans so reflexively worship success and money, such people have already had an outsize impact on how we live. Time will tell how much further their sway is amplified, as our biggest tech corporations try to blur lines and bend wills. Mark Zuckerberg even appears to have his eyes on the leadership of America, a country with a much smaller population than Facebook. How kind that he would accept such a demotion.

· · ·

Libertarians, a political class that has wet dreams about seasteading and abhors zoning regulations, also would like to see government (mostly) disappear. As the sinking of Houston’s runaway sprawl just reminded us, rules and regulations are needed. They can always be done better, but they need to be done.

Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, whose policies, if ever enacted fully, would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans, made his maiden voyage in 2014 to the purported government-less wonderland known as Burning Man. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the world could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. The Beltway “Burner” wrote of his experiences for the Guardian. Maileresque, it was not. An excerpt:

You hear that Burning Man is full of less-than-fully-clad folks and off-label pharmaceuticals. But that’s like saying Bohemian Grove is about peeing on trees or that Chicago is Al Capone territory. Burning Man is cleaner and greener than a rally for solar power. It has more camaraderie and sense of community than a church social. And for a week in the desert, I witnessed more individual expression, alternative lifestyles and imaginative fashion than …. anywhere.

The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars. Edgy, but not as exciting as some “gifts” that would have interested the federal authorities.

I’m hoping to bring the kids next year.

On my last day of my first Burning Man, at the Reno airport, a shoeless man (he had lost his shoes in the desert) was accosted by another dust-covered Burner carrying sneakers: “Take these,” he said. “They are my Burning Man shoes.” The shoeless man accepted the gift with dignity.•

What a putz, on many levels. Perhaps silliest of all is Norquist’s idea that Burning Man is a far freer society, which is dubious at best. It’s highly regulated and for good reason. Go and create some art in the desert if you like, peep at the nudity on display at this self-aware pseudo-Woodstock, but you’ll need to deal with a bureaucracy. That’s largely a positive development, since rules and sound infrastructure are often what protects us from disaster.

· · ·

From “The Endless Rules of Burning Man,” a CityLab piece by Christine Grillo:

The festival has been held on the shadeless alkali flats of Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area, since 1990. To call the environment inhospitable is an understatement. Every year, the temporary Black Rock City—home to 70,000 souls last year—is built with almost a conquistadorial glee by men and women hell-bent on imposing a form of civilization upon the lifeless playa, hauling in generators and propane and water and lumber and porta-potties. (And art, of course.)

As with permanent cities, the construction and maintenance of this municipal infrastructure requires an elaborate regulatory apparatus—and for the greater good, the regs must be enforced. When you imagine Burning Man, you might picture naked people riding bikes and making out and setting things on fire—and, indeed, that’s exactly what you’ll see if you attend. But, for a psychedelic, safety-third debauch, Burning Man has an awful lot of rules. …

As the event has grown, Black Rock City has become more like a real-world municipality, albeit one that’s whiter, wealthier, and more circular than most American cities of its size. Its lawmaking body is the Burning Man Organization—often referred to as the Org, or more jokingly as the Borg. Like many municipal entities or large corporations, the Org has a fondness for bloodless bureaucratese. Witness sentences like this, one of many similar ones to be found on the official Burning Man website: “As part of the organization restructuring efforts, several subcommittees were formed to decentralize management and to include more key stakeholders in decision-making.”•

Tags:

Yuval Noah Harari so calmly and clinically describes a fascistic, post-human future driven by algorithms and biotech that his prognostications seem fait accompli. His ideas should be read instead as cautionary tales. As Swift used the undersized and super-sized proportions of Lilliputians and Brobdingnags, respectively, to provoke, lecture and caution, Harari’s monstrous machines and microscopic laboratory manipulations should encourage debate about how even far less of a technological society than he envisions can still impact us with potentially negative consequences, intended or unintended.

In a Los Angeles Review of Books piece by Philip Kitcher, the writer reviews Harari’s most recent title, Homo Deus, along with Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s A Crack in Creation, two volumes dedicated to the next big thing: that moment when we co-opt evolution and become something like gods. Kitcher asserts rightly, I believe, that those who fear germline modifications of genes (changes made in the womb that would eradicate diseases from future generations) are worrying most likely needlessly, at least if we’re talking about truly awful outcomes and not just less-favorable ones (ALS as opposed to being somewhat less than average height).

His lack of concern about enhancement in general, however, seems, myopic to me. He can say in a vacuum that “genetic enhancement should not cater” to those who aim to turn out superior offspring, but in the competition among states and corporations, those neat lines of distinction will be blurred. It we got even foggier once the tools of the cell biologist’s trade are in the hands of the many—when they are fast, cheap and (perhaps) out of control.

An excerpt:

What of enhancement? Here, the case against using tools of gene editing appears even stronger. Nevertheless, as Doudna and Steinberg partly appreciate, revulsion stems from fixating on a specific type of example. When ambitious parents hope their children will exhibit particular characteristics — being tall or intelligent, for example — the desire is often comparative: they want the kids to be taller or smarter than their peers. Genetic enhancement should not cater to that sort of wish. A society in which privileged people buy further biological advantages for themselves and their dependents is an ethically hideous prospect, as exemplified by the alphas, betas, gammas, and deltas of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

When competition plays no role, however, genetic enhancement can be harmless, even benign. The losses affecting us as we age are familiar facts of human life. Hearing becomes less sensitive, and memory declines. Although the causal details underlying these processes are not yet fully known, it is easy to imagine that they might be discovered — and that the discovery could allow somatic interventions to preserve our youthful capacities as we age. People benefiting from those interventions would be genetically enhanced, equipped with abilities no normal human being has ever had. If the interventions were available to all, parts of the standard health protections delivered by all (enlightened) societies, it is hard to see what objections could be leveled against them. …

Yuval Noah Harari is also interested in the threats attending the human future, and impressed with the possibilities of applying biological knowledge to modify human genomes. But in Homo Deus, he paints on a far larger canvas. Scientific advances have provided our species with godlike opportunities. Computer technology and molecular biology together will transform human lives and what it means to be human. Most members of our species will become redundant. All of us will have to face the fact that we are not, and have never been, autonomous agents. The flaws in humanism will be exposed. A new religion in which the flow of data becomes central — becomes the reigning deity — will triumph.

Or will it?•

Tags: , , ,

Recently, the excellent Open Culture site tweeted the suicide note of George Eastman, the Kodak magnate who took his own life in 1932 with single bullet to the chest, despondent about the chronic pain of spinal stenosis and seemingly weary of a world of wealth, safaris, philanthropy and fame. The goodbye was brief:

To my friends

My work is done

Why wait?

GE

It was his invention of roll film in 1884 that brought photography to the masses and soon enough made motion pictures possible. The vast sums of money that followed allowed Eastman to become one of the leading benefactors of his era, and his life was unmarked by scandal until he sent some gathered friends out of a room he was occupying in his handsome Rochester home and carried out his shocking ending. The gun’s explosion caused them to scurry back where they found the inventor, now dead or dying, and his last written words. The lead story in the March 14, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle told of his demise.

Tags:

“The future is speeding at us, and it’s almost abusive how deeply cynical both sides are,” the Republican political consultant Rick Wilson recently said, speaking of the response from his party and the Democrats to manufacturing and automation. Specifically, he was referring to how the Trump Administration has promised a return to glory for plants and mines and the Democrats belief that every worker formerly on the assembly line can be upskilled into a software engineer. I doubt most conservatives beyond Trump believe the former and it’s dubious the majority of Democrats believe the latter. Those ideas, however, have been prominent in the last year.

· · ·

The idea that robotics will displace many American workers is true now as it has been for at least a century. As long as there have been machines, really, they’ve always gradually taken over some work as new opportunities were created. The question is whether we’re on the verge of an AI boom that will speed this transition beyond management. Such rapid progress would mean we’re becoming wealthy in the aggregate, but distribution would likely be a huge problem. That’s why so many in the tech field have suggested a Universal Basic Income, something for everyone, not just a reverse tax credit to boost the less fortunate from poverty. But while this work-less future is possible, it seems far from plausible. 

· · ·

Currently there’s wide agreement on all sides that production numbers don’t show a radical expansion of technology displacing workers and boosting output. The only caution is that advances are sometimes overpromised, then ridiculed and then they deliver in a massive way. Not so with cold fusion, but that certainly was the case with computers and the Internet.

In 1985, the lively New York Times reporter Erik Sandberg-Diment sarcastically eulogized the laptop, laughing at what Silicon Valley had believed could be the future. The opening:

“WHATEVER happened to the laptop computer? Two years ago, on my flight to Las Vegas for Comdex, the annual microcomputer trade show, every second or third passenger pulled out a portable, ostensibly to work, but more likely to demonstrate an ability to keep up with the latest fad. Last year, only a couple of these computers could be seen on the fold-down trays. This year, every one of them had been replaced by the more traditional mixed drink or beer.

Was the laptop dream an illusion, then?

Imagine his humbling just two decades later when the Feynman’s “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” theory was proven correct and the iPhone was introduced.

· · ·

Robots will show up in China just in time,” Daniel Kahneman has said. In order to sustain its giant population, China will need robotics on a mass scale. It’s neighbor Japan will probably require automation on a much grander scale despite a much smaller population. An ardently anti-immigrant country with a graying citizenry, Japan is among the states that could be asking an inverse question: What will happen if robots don’t take all the jobs?

· · ·

My best guess is that there will always be work to do in the future, but sometimes not enough. Not every job needs to disappear to destabilize society in a serious way, just enough. If entire industries vanish into the zeros and ones in too fast a fashion the way video stores across America were decimated by Netflix’s 3,500 employees and endless algorithms (and, yes, I define algorithms as robots), that can leave sectors in the dust. Many of those positions at first will be lousy jobs (e.g., truck driver), but that doesn’t mean those already settled into such careers will have an easy time of it. AI may not be an avalanche that crushes us all, but it could be a continuous series of small earthquakes.

Two excerpts on opposite sides of the argument follow.

_______________________

An exchange about a potential AI revolution from a Reddit AMA by Life 3.0 author Max Tegmark:

Question:

Do you believe AI will take over the majority of “menial” jobs within the working world, and if so how will we as people adjust to support those who would have been employed within those positions?

Max Tegmark:

Not only menial jobs, but also many jobs that require lots of training for us humans, such as analyzing radiology images to determine whether patients have cancer. To safeguard your career, go for jobs that machines are bad at – involving people, unpredictability and creativity. Avoid careers about to get automated away, involving repetitive or structured actions in a predictable setting. Telemarketers, warehouse workers, cashiers, train operators, bakers or line cooks. Drivers of trucks, buses, taxis and Uber/Lyft cars are likely to follow soon. There are many more professions (including paralegals, credit analysts, loan officers, bookkeepers and tax accountants) that, although they aren’t on the endangered list for full extinction, are getting most of their tasks automated and therefore demand much fewer humans. I give more detailed job advice in Chapter 3 of my new book. If machines becomes able to do all our jobs in a few decades, that doesn’t have to spell doom and gloom as is commonly assumed. It could give everyone who wanted a life of leisure and play if we as a society share the vast new wealth produced by machines in a way such that nobody gets worse off. The’ll be plenty enough resources to do this, but whether there’s the political will is another matter, and currently I feel that things are moving in the opposite direction in the US and most western countries, with the large groups of people getting steadily poorer in real terms – creating anger which helps explain the victories of Trump & Brexit.•

______________________

From Nicholas Carr’s latest Rough Type rebuttal to the idea that the robots are coming for us:

You can see the robot age everywhere but in the labor statistics, I wrote a few months ago, channeling Robert Solow. The popular and often alarming predictions of a looming unemployment crisis, one that would stem from rapid advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other computer automation technologies, have become increasingly hard to square with the economy’s rebound to near full employment. If computers were going to devastate jobs on a broad scale, one would think there’d be signs of it by now. We have, after all, been seeing remarkable gains in computing and software for many decades, while the broadband internet has been working its putative magic for more than twenty years. And it’s not like a shortage of corporate cash is curtailing investment in technology. Profits have been robust and capital cheap.

Still, even as jobs rebounded from the depths of the Great Recession, overall wage growth has appeared sluggish, at times stagnant. It has seemed possible that the weakness in wages might be the canary in the automated coal mine, an early indication of a coming surge in technological unemployment. If humans are increasingly competing for jobs against automatons, of both the hardware and software variety, that might explain workers’ inability to reap wage gains from a tightening labor market — and it might presage a broad shift of work from people to machines. At some point, if automation continued to put downward pressure on pay, workers would simply give up trying to compete with technology. The robots would win.

But even here, there’s growing reason to doubt the conventional wisdom.•

Tags: ,

Paying taxes is deeply repellent to many Americans who profit daily from what these collected monies make possible. Corporations particularly find this process galling. Paul Ryan visited Boeing in Washington State a week ago to give full-throated disapproval of the 35% corporate tax rate. Of course, the airplane manufacturer pays closer to 5%. Apple’s payout is often essentially negligible. The average effective corporate tax rate in the U.S. is roughly 27% thanks to myriad loopholes.

The House Speaker, the Oval Office and usually warring factions of Republicans all agree the number needs to be lowered to between 15-20%. Experience shows this reduction won’t create new jobs, just enrich the already wealthy. When Americans wonder where all the money went and why we can’t build infrastructure without ballooning the deficit — which exists largely because of Dubya’s tax cuts for the wealthy in 2001 — the answer rests mostly in congressional offices and corporate suites.

· · ·

One of the main bugaboos plaguing Russian businessman and scientist Igor Ashurbeyli’s proposed Asgardia: The Space Nation (as opposed to Asgardia: The Thing That Guards My Ass) is the issue of taxes, though that’s hardly the only obstacle. His vision is one of “Space Arks” orbiting the Earth and being home to a “democratic utopia,” a nation-state beyond the rules of Earth that works to protect the mothership.

Hundreds of thousands folks from a variety of nations have already applied for citizenship (damn foreigners!), though, as you might expect, there are some details to be worked out even beyond preventing everyone from dying in a container in the stratosphere. As Charles Rollet explains in a Wall Street Journal article, the entrepreneur has decided taxes will be voluntary, perhaps not the easiest way to build a new civilization.

The opening:

It’s tough enough to create a nation in space. There’s the Earth-orbiting colony to plan, the provisioning to figure out and the technical challenge of launching thousands of people.

On top of that, you have to make folks get along before they even rocket up there.

The scale of the human task is dawning on Russian businessman and scientist Igor Ashurbeyli, who last year drew headlines with his plan for a peaceful democratic utopia dubbed Asgardia above the stratosphere.

More than 300,000 people from 217 countries and territories signed up online to be Asgardians—among them starry-eyed dreamers, sci-fi fans and political idealists—and 110,000 of them are now officially citizens.

While Dr. Ashurbeyli’s lofty plan involves launching “Space Arks” into lower Earth orbit by 2025, he has found himself caught up in earthly debates among his people about pesky details such as the space nation’s constitution and potential taxes.

Not to mention its prospective shortage of women.

Among problems facing Asgardia, “the biggest is self-organization,” said Dr. Ashurbeyli, 53, “because no one has ever tried organizing…what is today 100,000 citizens from 200 countries who don’t know each other and live in different places on Earth.”

Dr. Ashurbeyli, based in Moscow, has few details about how Asgardia, named after Asgard, the godly realm of Norse mythology, would be built, launched and run. Specifics are to be decided by the nation’s parliament.•

Tags: ,

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may or may not be compromised by the deep bond he formed with Vladimir Putin while Exxon CEO, but at the very least, he seems to be challenged by basic common sense. When he spoke on the White House sending several thousand more troops to wage a war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he offered this perplexing quote about future battles between the U.S. and our nemesis: “We may not win one, but neither will you.”

Promising a stalemate with the Taliban essentially guarantees them a win since they live there and we don’t. Eventually, you would think, we’ll leave. That’s not exactly thinking 20 moves ahead. The economist Tyler Cowen, a brilliant person who’s read as many books as anyone, sized up the Secretary of State this way in April: “I think there’s a good chance Rex Tillerson turns out to be quite good.” Missed by that much.

The Secretary of State has weakened America’s position on the world stage at every turn, even allowing his concern about “angering Moscow” to guide our policy. Max Boot put it as bluntly as possible in his new Foreign Policy piece, writing that Tillerson “should do the country a favor and resign.”

How can someone so smart not only misjudge a sleepy CEO who seems poorly equipped for the job, but also pull his punches when discussing the repeatedly gormless and hypocritical politics of Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel? In the latter case, there may be something of a friendship the economist wants to protect (another dubious decision), but it also has to do with the nature of intelligence. IQ isn’t everything, may be no more than half the thing. Plenty of people not nearly as well-read as Cowen have long had Thiel and Tillerson pegged for what they are. They possess something lacked by him, James BakerNassim Nicholas TalebDavid Gelernter and other highly educated people, all of whom have come up small during this gigantic moment.

· · ·

In a smart Bloomberg View column, Cowen addresses his misgivings about genetic engineering being used to create “designer babies,” something that may not happen in our lifetimes in any profound way but will probably progress significantly this century. CRISPR has remarkable promise to eradicate diseases in the womb, but it also may ultimately permit parents to choose eye color, height, gender, sexual orientation and IQ. This opens a Pandora’s box of problems.

One would be the possibility that a country could try to speed ahead of the rest of the world by radically boosting intelligence in its population. That would result in a dangerous new “arms race.” It may seem we’re rushing toward a brighter future, but as I said in the opening, intelligence isn’t the only thing that matters when developing a great society.

Cowen’s opening:

There’s a lot of innovation going on in China these days, but perhaps not all of it is good. Chinese fertility centers are going well beyond American practices, using genetic diagnosis to influence how children conceived through in vitro fertilization will turn out. On one hand, the potential for improving human health is enormous. On the other hand, I am uneasy at the prospect of the power this gives parents. I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.

Sometimes you hear it argued that the complex nature of genes will prevent major feats of genetic engineering. That may be selling short future advances in Big Data and biomedicine, but even minor changes in genetic diagnosis and selection could have significant effects. Maybe you can’t choose to have a child who will be happy, but you might be able to lower the chance of your kid having depression or social anxiety by some small amount. Over the course of generations, that will exert great influence over the nature of the human experience.

One risk, of course, is that parents will opt for some apparently desirable qualities in their children, and then the experiment will backfire, due to unforeseen genetic connections. Maybe we’ll get happier kids, but they will be less creative, or less driven, or they might care less about others. Those are valid concerns, especially in these early days of genetic engineering. But I have a deeper worry, namely that things can go badly even when parents get exactly what they want.

If you could directly alter your kids’ genetic profile, what would you want? It’s hard to know how the social debate would turn out after years of back and forth, but I was dismayed to read one recent research paper by psychologists Rachel M. Latham and Sophie von Stumm. The descriptive title of that work, based on survey evidence, is “Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children.” Upon reflection, maybe that isn’t so surprising, because parents presumably want children who are fun to spend time with.

Would a more extroverted human race be desirable, all things considered? I genuinely don’t know, but at the very least I am concerned.•

Tags:

“We need to put everything online,” Bill Joy tells Steven Levy in an excellent Backchannel interview, and I’m afraid that’s what we’re going to do. It’s an ominous statement in a mostly optimistic piece about the inventor’s advances in batteries, which could be a boon in creating clean energy.

Of course, Joy doesn’t mean his sentiment to be unnerving. He looks at sensors, cameras and computers achieving ubiquity as a means to help with logistics of urban life. But they’re also fascistic in the wrong hands–and eventually that’s where they’ll land. These tools can help the trains run on time, and they can also enable a Mussolini.

Progress and regress have always existed in the same moment, but these movements have become amplified as cheap, widely available tools have become far more powerful in our time. So we have widespread governmental and corporate surveillance of citizens, while individuals and militias are armed with weapons more powerful than anything the local police possesses. This seems to be where we’re headed in America: Everyone is armed in one way or another in a very dangerous game. 

When Joy is questioned about the downsides of AI, he acknowledges “I don’t know how to slow the thing down.” No one really seems to.

An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

In the 1990s you were promoting a technology called Jini that anticipated mobile tech and the Internet of Things. Does the current progress reflect what you were thinking all those years ago?

Bill Joy:

Exactly. I have some slides from 25 years ago where I said, “Everyone’s going to be carrying around mobile devices.” I said, “They’re all going to be interconnected. And there are 50 million cars and trucks a year, and those are going to be computerized.” Those are the big things on the internet, right?

Steven Levy:

What’s next?

Bill Joy:

We’re heading toward the kind of environment that David Gelernter talked about in his book, Mirror Worlds, when he said, “The city becomes a simulation of itself.” It’s not so interesting just to identify what’s out there statically. What you want to do is have some notion of how that affects things in the time domain. We need to put everything online, with all the sensors and other things providing information, so we can move from static granular models to real simulations. It’s one thing to look at a traffic map that shows where the traffic is green and red. But that’s actually backward-looking. A simulation would tell me where it’s going to be green and where it’s going to be red.

This is where AI fits in. If I’m looking at the world I have to have a model of what’s out there, whether it’s trained in a neural net or something else. Sure, I can image-recognize a child and a ball on this sidewalk. The important thing is to recognize that, in a given time domain, they may run into the street, right? We’re starting to get the computing power to do a great demo of this. Whether it all hangs together is a whole other thing.

Steven Levy:

Which one of the big companies will tie it together?

Bill Joy:

Google seems to be in the lead, because they’ve been hiring these kind of people for so long. And if there’s a difficult problem, Larry [Page, Google’s CEO] wants to solve it. Microsoft has also hired a lot of people, as well as Facebook and even Amazon. In these early days, this requires an enormous amount of computing power. Having a really, really big computer is kind of like a time warp, in that you can do things that aren’t economical now but will be economically [feasible] maybe a decade from now. Those large companies have the resources to give someone like Demis [Hassabis, head of Google’s DeepMind AI division] $100 million, or even $500 million a year, for computer time, to allow him to do things that maybe will be done by your cell phone 10 years later.

Steven Levy:

Where do you weigh in on the controversy about whether AI is a threat to humanity?

Bill Joy:

Funny, I wrote about that a long time ago.

Steven Levy:

Yes, in your essay The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” But where are you now on that?

Bill Joy:

I think at this point the really dangerous nanotech is genetic, because it’s compatible with our biology and therefore it can be contagious. With CRISPR-Cas9 and variants thereof, we have a tool that’s almost shockingly powerful. But there are clearly ethical risks and danger in AI. I’m at a distance from this, working on the clean-tech stuff. I don’t know how to slow the thing down, so I decided to spend my time trying to create the things we need as opposed to preventing [what threatens us]. I’m not fundamentally a politician. I’m better at inventing stuff than lobbying.•

Tags: ,

Was looking at the wonderful The Browser earlier today, and the quote of the day was from William Carlos Williams: “That which is possible is inevitable.” So true, especially when that sentiment is applied to technology. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost and we should just idly allow the creeping — and sometimes leaping — advances of tech to roll over us, but it does speak to the competition among corporations and states that often moves forward agendas for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense or public good. 

It’s dubious we’ll come to some global consensus on inviolate rules governing genetic modifications of life forms or autonomous weapons systems. Of the two, there’s more hope for the latter than the former, considering the costs involved, though neither seems particularly promising. It won’t take a great deal of resources soon enough to rework the genome, with terrorist organizations as well as educational institutions in the game. Eventually, even startups in garages and “lone gunmen” will be able to create and destroy in this manner. This field will be, in time, decentralized.

Killer robots, conversely, aren’t going to be fast, cheap and out of control for the foreseeable future, though that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. In fact, it’s plausible they will, even if the barrier of entry is much higher. There are currently reasons for America, China, Russia and other players to shy away from these weapons that guide themselves, but all it will take is for one major competitor to blink for everyone to rush into the future. And all sides have to keep gradually moving toward such capacity in the meantime in order to respond rapidly should a competing nation jump across the divide. Ultimately, everyone will probably blink.

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” advised an open letter from leading AI and robotics experts to the UN, encouraging the intergovernmental body to urgently address the matter of autonomous weapons. That’s certainly accurate, though the box opening seems more likely than a total ban succeeding.

· · ·

From “Sorry, Banning ‘Killer Robots’ Just Isn’t Practical,” a smart Wired piece by Tom Simonite, which speaks to how the nebulous definition of “autonomous weapons” will aid in their development:

LATE SUNDAY, 116 entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, released a letter to the United Nations warning of the dangerous “Pandora’s Box” presented by weapons that make their own decisions about when to kill. Publications including The Guardian and The Washington Post ran headlines saying Musk and his cosigners had called for a “ban” on “killer robots.”

Those headlines were misleading. The letter doesn’t explicitly call for a ban, although one of the organizers has suggested it does. Rather, it offers technical advice to a UN committee on autonomous weapons formed in December. The group’s warning that autonomous machines “can be weapons of terror” makes sense. But trying to ban them outright is probably a waste of time.

That’s not because it’s impossible to ban weapons technologies. Some 192 nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans chemical weapons, for example. An international agreement blocking use of laser weapons intended to cause permanent blindness is holding up nicely.

Weapons systems that make their own decisions are a very different, and much broader, category. The line between weapons controlled by humans and those that fire autonomously is blurry, and many nations—including the US—have begun the process of crossing it. Moreover, technologies such as robotic aircraft and ground vehicles have proved so useful that armed forces may find giving them more independence—including to kill—irresistible.•

Tags:

From the April 24, 1930 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

From the August 1930 Popular Science:

Gene-editing technologies have some short-term concerning applications and other truly chilling long-term ones, but the creation of “designer babies” or any other human enhancement on that level isn’t part of our immediate future. That isn’t because of a paucity of will to use these miraculous new tools in this direction, but as David Epstein pointed out when he published The Sports Gene is 2013 and Pam Belluck of the New York Times reminded earlier this month, we know far too little about how genes control traits to alter humans in such a profound way. Some believe we’ll never quite understand the process and interactions, though I’m sure we eventually will.

In the meanwhile, we need to discuss CRISPR and its vast implications, especially since such powerful tools will likely find their way into many hands outside traditional laboratories. From Megan Molteni’s smart Wired report about the refreshing diversity found at CRISPRcon:

On Wednesday and Thursday, the University of California, Berkeley welcomed about 300 people—scientists, CEOs, farmers, regulators, conservationists, and interested citizens—to its campus to take a hard look at the wünderenzyme known as Cas9. They discussed their greatest hopes and fears for the technology. There were no posters, no p-values; just a lot of real talk. You can bet it was the first Crispr conference to sandwich a Cargill executive between a septagenarian organic farmer and an environmental justice warrior. But the clashing views were a feature, not a bug. “When you feel yourself tightening up, that’s when you’re about to learn something,” said moderator and Grist reporter, Nathanael Johnson.

Which, to be honest, was totally refreshing. Serious conversations about who should get to do what with Crispr have been largely confined to ivory towers and federal agencies. In February the National Academy of Sciences released a report with its first real guidelines for Crispr, and while it suggested limitations on certain applications—like germline modifications—it was largely silent on questions outside of scientific research. What sorts of economies will Crispr create; which ones will it destroy? What are the risks of using Crispr to save species that will otherwise go extinct? Who gets to decide if it’s worth it? And how important is it ensure everyone has equal access to the technology? Getting a diverse set of viewpoints on these questions was the explicit goal of CrisprCon.

Why was that important? Greg Simon, director of the Biden Cancer Initiative and the conference’s keynote speaker, perhaps said it best: “Crispr is not a light on the nation, it’s a mirror.” In other words, it’s just another technology that’s only as good as the people using it.

Panel after panel took the stage (each one, notably, populated with women and people of color) and discussed how other then-cutting-edge technologies had failed in the past, and what history lessons Crispr users should not forget. In the field of conservation, one panel discussed, ecologists failed to see the ecosystem-wide effects of introduced species. As a result, cane toads, red foxes, and Asian carp created chaos in Australia and New Zealand. How do you prevent gene drives—a technique to spread a gene quickly through a wild population—from running similarly amok?•

Tags:

Had the misfortune recently of being inside a Kmart, which reminded me of the last, sad days of the defunct Nobody Beats the Wiz consumer-electronics franchise, when it was very clear that Somebody Had Most Definitely Beaten the Wiz–and beyond recognition. Just a handful of kids worked the sprawling, three-level store, with several customers leaving in frustration because no one was around to unlock merchandise they wanted to purchase or help them find products. It was largely a dust-covered ghost town filled with cheap plastic goods, an Adam Levine collection of clothes Adam Levine would not wish on his worst enemy and some dubious looking flat-screen TVs emitting a sickly blue glow. 

The Wiz died because of an overly aggressive expansion in the mid- to late-’90s, a time when big-box stores, Kmart included, became impossible to compete with. Now Amazon and other online retailers are the disrupters, with big-boxers and malls fighting for their lives. From the consumer point of view, these transitions are mostly a win, because online shopping is better than Kmart which was better than the Wiz, in terms of selection (always) and cost (usually). For workers, it seems at best a lateral move.

If enough brick-and-mortar outlets disappear, the overall number of jobs decline. Amazon needs fewer to do the same tasks and even the new positions it creates aren’t better compensated than the ones supplanted. The company announced in April that it was hiring 2,500 workers at its New Jersey fulfillment centers. Management positions, which require a Bachelor’s degree, pay $31,000. Not exactly a living wage for a family of four. 

You could say the flow from small chain to big box to web shopping happened without any profound advances in robotics driving the evolution, though that depends of how you define the term. Algorithms made it all possible. They will also over time make possible the replacement of a lot of those fulfillment-center workers, as Amazon and the other Silicon Valley megapowers like Apple, are investing heavily in automation systems. That doesn’t necessarily ensure crisis, since new work can be created. But if enough jobs disappear too quickly or some whole sectors get decimated by, say, driverless cars, the shift could get messy.

The future remains unsettled: Are we in the nascent stage of a new era of automation which is slow starting like PCs were but will eventually boom, or is this scare as toothless as others in history? If it’s the former, wealth will grow but distribution may get trickier.

· · ·

James Surowiecki, a skeptic of a Second Machine Age, recently wondered which jobs have been completely disappeared by technology, which is an amusing exercise but a fairly insignificant question. In a Wired article, however, he makes a potent argument that all trusted indicators (productivity, job churn, etc.) say decisively that the machines have not yet come for our jobs. An excerpt:

Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future. We are living in the midst of a “second machine age,” to quote the title of the influential book by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in which routine work of all kinds—in manufacturing, sales, bookkeeping, food prep—is being automated at a steady clip, and even complex analytical jobs will be superseded before long. A widely cited 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, for instance, found that nearly half of all jobs in the US were at risk of being fully automated over the next 20 years. The endgame, we’re told, is inevitable: The robots are on the march, and human labor is in retreat.

This anxiety about automation is understandable in light of the hair-raising progress that tech companies have made lately in robotics and artificial intelligence, which is now capable of, among other things, defeating Go masters, outbluffing champs in Texas Hold’em, and safely driving a car. And the notion that we’re on the verge of a radical leap forward in the scale and scope of automation certainly jibes with the pervasive feeling in Silicon Valley that we’re living in a time of unprecedented, accelerating innovation. Some tech leaders, including Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Tesla’s Elon Musk, are so sure this jobless future is imminent—and, perhaps, so wary of torches and pitchforks—that they’re busy contemplating how to build a social safety net for a world with less work. Hence the sudden enthusiasm in Silicon Valley for a so-called universal basic income, a stipend that would be paid automatically to every citizen, so that people can have something to live on after their jobs are gone.

It’s a dramatic story, this epoch-defining tale about automation and permanent unemployment. But it has one major catch: There isn’t actually much evidence that it’s happening.•

Tags:

Yesterday’s insane, impromptu press conference by Donald Trump in the lobby of a gold, gaudy building he named for himself, was in TV trope terms “the reveal,” that moment when the Ku Klux Kardashian openly admitted his allegiance to hate groups. He’s never been shy about his bigotry, but this time he fully pulled the death from inside his belly and laid it in an open casket for the whole world to view. That is was all done within earshot of a crumpling John Kelly, a square-jawed man of Apollonian abilities who was somehow supposed to steady the chaos, makes clear that the new Chief of Staff is engaged in an unwinnable war, an Afghanistan of the mind. 

The bizarre scene reminded of the many failings of American society that brought us to this point, in which Trump is merely the ugliest imaginable result of our decay but not its cause. It also brings to mind a passage from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America:

Our age has produced a new kind of eminence. This is as characteristic of our culture and our century as was the divinity of Greek gods in the sixth century B.C. or the chivalry of knights and courtly lovers in the middle ages. It has not yet driven heroism, sainthood, or martyrdom completely out of our consciousness. But with every decade it overshadows them more. All older forms of greatness now survive only in the shadow of this new form. This new kind of eminence is “celebrity.”

The word “celebrity” (from the Latin cekbritas for “multitude” or “fame” and “celeber” meaning “frequented,” “populous,” or “famous”) originally meant not a person but a condition — as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the condition of being much talked about; famousness, notoriety.” In this sense its use dates from at least the early seventeenth century. Even then it had a weaker meaning than “fame” or “renown.” Matthew Arnold, for example, remarked in the nineteenth century that while the philosopher Spinoza’s followers had “celebrity,” Spinoza himself had “fame.” …

His qualities — or rather his lack of qualities — illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event.•

Trump certainly runs afoul of the “neither good or bad” rule, neutral he is not, but Boorstin wrote his book in 1961, long before the Murdoch family spent two decades screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater, not in any way representing a conservative political viewpoint but instead packaging and selling white resentment and fake news. James and Lachlan are supposedly different from their dad, but they’ve shown the willingness to peddle Seth Rich conspiracies and describe Joe Arpaio as “colorful” rather than criminal. There are many other causes of our cultural rot–ceaseless deification of celebrity, Reality TV, the decentralization of media–but without the Murdochs, there would be no Trumps–at least not in the White House.

· · ·

In the Financial Times, Edward Luce asserts that America isn’t likely done administering self-inflicted wounds. The columnist explains why he believes the GOP family has been slow to act on its Nazi-friendly father, and I will offer one more possibility: Trump’s inner circle may not be peculiar in the upper reaches of the party for being dirty with Kremlin money. His ouster may accelerate a broader fall.

From Luce:

With some honourable exceptions, such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, Republicans are not ready to stand up to the president. Even Mr Ryan, whose condemnation of white supremacism was unequivocal, refrained from criticising Mr Trump directly. Others rushed to his defence. “President Trump once again denounced hate today,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!” By even-handedly condemning the “alt-right” and the “alt-left”, Mr Trump was upholding American values, you see. In addition to bad apples, the far right included some “very fine people”, said the president.

Republicans are paralysed on two counts. First, the party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves. His victory was the logical outcome of the party’s “southern strategy”, which dates from the late 1960s. The goal has been to siphon off southern whites from the Democratic party. Most Republicans have preferred to keep their tactics genteel. The signal of choice has been the dog whistle rather than the megaphone. Thus, in one form or another, most Republican states are reforming their voter registration systems. The fact that such laws disproportionately shrink the non-white electorate is an accidental byproduct of a colour-blind crackdown. Even without proof of widespread fraud, voter suppression has plausible deniability. Over the years, the same has applied to various wars on crime, drugs and welfare fraud, which were never discriminatory by design. Mr Trump has simply taken that approach into the open. He is the Republican party’s Frankenstein. The age of plausible deniability is over.

The second Republican problem is fear. Because of gerrymandering, most Republicans — and Democrats — are more vulnerable to a challenge from within their ranks than to defeat by the other party. As the saying goes, American politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately that gives the swing vote to the most committed elements of each party’s base. Though Mr Trump’s approval ratings are lower than for any president in history, he still has the backing of most Republican voters. Any elected Republican who opposes Mr Trump can be sure of merciless reprisal. It is a rare politician who would invite vilification from their own side.

Where will this end? The realistic answer is that Republicans will hide under a rock until they suffer a stinging defeat in next year’s midterm elections. But a defeat in 2018 is far from assured. Even then, it would have to be on a grand scale to reverse America’s deep forces of polarisation. Mr Trump will probably serve out his term.

The more worrying answer is that US democracy is heading towards a form of civil breakdown.•

Tags: , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »