Mark Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If we avoid the most pernicious effects of all the paper-towel-tossing, son-of-a-bitch-calling, refugee-bashing, pussy-grabbing, private-plane-riding, self-dealing, race-baiting, Constitution-shredding behavior of this Presidential Administration, the worst we’ve ever known, it will be because of how mired it is in ineptitude.  

Of course, there’s always the chance that this won’t be the worst government America ever has, that perhaps there will be another just as evil but far more competent, and that the ubiquitous surveillance apparatus we’re constructing for ourselves in our streets and homes will fall into the worst possible hands. Even if we don’t wind up in that place there’ll always be plenty of nations that do. Soon, a technologically enabled police state will be affordable to even the most modestly funded authoritarian regime.

Two excerpts follow.

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From “Privacy Is Under Threat From the Facial Recognition Revolution” in the Financial Times:

Unlike fingerprints, retinal scans or blood samples, it is easily performed without the subject’s knowledge. It will affect how we travel, live, shop, and much else. It will force changes in the way privacy is defined and protected. If those who care about individual rights do not start thinking about the implications now, those changes will be forced upon us rather than chosen.

Facial recognition is already in use around the world. The Chinese equivalent of Amazon, Alibaba, allows people to “pay with a smile” using facial recognition in stores, for example. The potential for good is obvious. Think of the hours that could be saved if facial recognition were to become the default identification tool at airports.

These benefits will have to balanced against the loss of anonymity. In Russia, an app called FindFace identifies individuals in photos, linking them to profiles on a social network called VKontakte. A similar service, if linked to Facebook and other networks, could put names to billions of faces. In the city of Shenzhen jaywalkers are identified using CCTV, and their faces and addresses posted on a large screen to shame them into better behaviour.

The technology will not be limited to connecting a face with information already present on the internet. A facial recognition model developed at Stanford, when presented with paired photos of individuals who self-identify as gay or straight, could tell which was which with 81 per cent accuracy in men and 74 per cent in women. Humans given the same task were much less accurate. Yes, the sample was limited and the study needs to be replicated with a more refined methodology. The results cannot be dismissed, though. Nor can the frightening implications. Consider an algorithm identifying sexual minorities deployed in an intolerant, authoritarian state. The technology may misclassify many, but tyrants lose little sleep over false positives.•

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From “Amazon’s Latest Alexa Devices Ready To Extend Company’s Reach Into Your Home,” Mark Harris’ Guardian article:

Amazon, hoping to replicate the success of its Echo device, is poised to extend its eyes and ears into every part of your life with the launch of new voice-controlled and camera-equipped Alexa devices designed for bedrooms, living rooms and even your car.
 
“Voice control in the home will be ubiquitous,” predicted David Limp, an Amazon senior vice-president who is in charge of the Echo devices, at an event in Seattle on Wednesday. “Kids today will grow up never knowing a day they couldn’t talk to their houses.”

The Echo has been Amazon’s surprise hit in the three years since it launched, finding its way into tens of millions of kitchens around the world, offering internet radio, timers, weather and news reports and voice calls. Now Amazon will start selling a smaller, cheaper version of the original Echo, with fabric and wood veneers, as well a new flagship device called the Echo Plus that promises to work instantly with dozens of smart home devices, such as locks, lights and electric sockets.

“Setting up your smart home is still just too hard,” Limp said. “It can take up to 15 steps to do something as simple as set up a lightbulb.”

Amazon’s vision is of homes with Echo devices in every room, listening to every word you say.•

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The narrative of the recent election is that Trump won over “forgotten Americans,” though Hillary Clinton received the most votes from households making under $50k. The MAGA voters who were fetishized in the Election Day post-mortem were white, and somehow their struggles were awarded greater currency than people who had less. Part of that is because they tipped a vital election by being located in certain states which gave them a certain political capital, but the truth is their skin color fit into the noxious demagoguery of the campaign season. 

I’ve published a couple of posts about the new Case-Deaton paper about morbidity and mortality, which tries to divine the reason for middle-aged Caucasians enduring a “great die-off.” The report has not yet been peer-reviewed, and in Pacific·Standard, Mark Harris pushes back at the findings, arguing the research is marked by suspect methodology (above my head) but also that it misleadingly fixates on white Americans who still enjoy healthier and wealthier lives across the board than, say, African-Americans. The latter group has a significantly shorter lifespan than their white counterparts.

If the trend lines truly show one race making progress and another faltering, even if the declining group is richer, it’s certainly valuable to report as much so that we can attempt to stem a serious problem. The danger, however, is that attention will be pulled from those who need it most because of a compelling story line. 

From Harris:

Dubious methodology aside, there is still some useful information in the Case and Deaton report. America does seem to have a serious problem ensuring longevity for its population as compared to its peer nations. But, though the international perspective is the strongest part in their paper, it’s not what the researchers or the newspapers led with. Why put the statistical alchemy in front? Why is the story more dramatic or attractive when it’s about white people?

Mistakes and missteps also propel social science forward, as the Olshansky paper did. Still, Case and Deaton didn’t publish their findings in a peer-reviewed public-health journal, at least not first. Brookings is a center of political influence in Washington, and I have no doubt that Capitol Hill staffers have already written up their briefs on the report and passed them to their bosses — that is, if they work half as fast as Internet journalists do.

By the time it makes its way to the top of the policymaker food chain, how will this report be understood? I’d wager it’s something like the Brookings blog headline: “Working Class White Americans Are Now Dying in Middle Age at Faster Rates Than Minority Groups.” I asked [Arline] Geronimus if that was, to her understanding, a true statement: “I think that’s misleading, I really do. Oh boy,” she laughs, “there’s so much wrong with that. That headline makes it sound like problems are worse for white Americans than black Americans.” The narrative is wrong, but it’s not the first time Geronimus has heard it since the election. The Case and Deaton paper, she says, fits conveniently in this story, and it’s one she fears Americans are primed to believe.•

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Before robots take our jobs, a more mechanical form of human will handle many of them. In fact, it’s already happening.

The new connectedness and tools have allowed for certain types of employment to be shrunk if not disappeared. It’s true whether your collar is blue or white, whether you have a job or career, if you’re a taxi driver or the passenger being transported to a fancy office.

“Meatware”–a term which perfectly sums up a faceless type of human labor pool–minimizes formerly high-paying positions into tasks any rabbit can handle. It’s a race to the bottom, where there’s plenty of room, with the winners also being losers.

In Mark Harris’ insightful Backchannel article, the writer hired some Mechanical Turk-ers to explore the piecework phenomenon. The opening:

Harry K. sits at his desk in Vancouver, Canada, scanning sepia-tinted swirls, loops and blobs on his computer screen. Every second or so, he jabs at his mouse and adds a fluorescent dot to the image. After a minute, a new image pops up in front of him.

Harry is tagging images of cells removed from breast cancers. It’s a painstaking job but not a difficult one, he says: “It’s like playing Etch A Sketch or a video game where you color in certain dots.”

Harry found the gig on Crowdflower, a crowdworking platform. Usually that cell-tagging task would be the job of pathologists, who typically start their careers with annual salaries of around $200,000 — an hourly wage of about $80. Harry, on the other hand, earns just four cents for annotating a batch of five images, which takes him between two to eight minutes. His hourly wage is about 60 cents.

Granted, Harry can’t perform most of the tasks in a pathologist’s repertoire. But in 2016 — 11 years after the launch of the ur-platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk — crowdworking (sometimes also called crowdsourcing) is eating into increasingly high-skilled jobs. The engineers who are developing this model of labor have a bold ambition to atomize entire careers into micro-tasks that almost anyone, anywhere in the world, can carry out online. They’re banking on the idea that any technology that can make a complex process 100 times cheaper, as in Harry’s case, will spread like wildfire.•

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I feel fairly certain that if humans reached our endgame on Earth at this moment, if we met, say, with the business end of an asteroid, and if anthropologists from some distant galaxy someday studied us, one of the things they would find most surprising, perplexing, and even endearing, is that oracles in a place called Hollywood spent hundreds of millions of dollars making individual comic-book movies, one after another, that they essentially engaged in celluloid nation-building. It’s insane–and understandable, given the economics of our globalized world. I have no interest in the product itself, no concern for Han Solo or the Hulk, so I am left to ponder other implications. Mark Harris does the same in his latest Grantland article, “The Birdcage,” which focuses on the year the film industry completely surrendered to the blockbuster. An excerpt:

“That’s not where we are anymore. In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. Theyare the movie business. Period. Twelve of the year’s 14 highest grossers are, or will spawn, sequels. (The sole exceptions — assuming they remain exceptions, which is iffy — are Big Hero 6 and Maleficent.) Almost everything else that comes out of Hollywood is either an accident, a penance (people who run the studios do like to have a reason to go to the Oscars), a modestly budgeted bone thrown to an audience perceived as niche (black people, women, adults), an appeasement (movie stars are still important and they must occasionally be placated with something interesting to do so they’ll be cooperative about doing the big stuff), or anecessity (sometimes, unfortunately, it is required that a studio take a chance on something new in order to initiate a franchise). A successful franchise is no longer used to finance the rest of a studio’s lineup; a studio’s lineup is brands and franchises, and that’s it. Disney, of all the big companies, is the closest to approaching the absolute zero of this ideal — its movies are virtually all branded, whether Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, or Walt Disney Studios — and anyone who doesn’t imagine that other studio CFOs are gazing at that model in envy and wonder is delusional. Disney is a kingdom of subkingdoms. Nothing minor or modest need apply.

Every generation of studio titan is less apologetic than the one before. In Hollywood’s first golden age, the studios were run by shrewd, canny, undereducated first- or second-generation Americans — crass businessmen who claimed to love Art; they maintained offices in New York City where they deputized aides to elevate the tawdry screen trade from lowbrow to middlebrow by purchasing legitimacy in the form of the best-reviewed new novels and most acclaimed Broadway plays. God bless them every one; their aspirationalism built Hollywood. Decades later, once movies themselves had become a central and even revered part of the culture, that era of mogul gave way to a new breed: the bottom-line businessman who loved movies as long as they were entertaining, but was still willing to reassure doubters that he occasionally liked Art, too, up to a point and in small doses. They still had enough old-Hollywood DNA to feel an obligation to tithe: A modest portion of their profits would always be used to take gambles on the kind of great hopes that didn’t always translate to bottom-line success.

Today we have a different model: The modern studio chief loves business, success, replication, and reliability, and nobody expects him to offer even the most cursory nod to anything that smacks of ideals that relate to content; that’s not what he’s there for.”

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You would think Google would want its autonomous cars to drive every loop–jump through every hoop–to prove that its software is safe and shut up naysayers. But the search giant instead hopes to speed up the process, lobbying California to certify the robocars based on test drives that are computer simulations which don’t involve real roads. From Mark Harris at the Guardian:

“Google has built a ‘Matrix-style’ digital simulation of the entire Californian road system in which it is testing its self-driving cars – and is lobbying the state’s regulators to certify them based on virtual rather than real driving.

The extensive simulation – reminiscent of the virtual cities created for human captives in sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix – exists entirely inside computers at the company’s Mountain View location, and the cars have so far virtually ‘driven’ more than 4 million miles inside it, facing challenges just like those in the real world, such as lane-weaving motorists, wobbly cyclists and unpredictable pedestrians.

The ambition of the simulation illustrates how serious the tech company is at developing self-driving cars, an innovation that has been independently estimated as worth billions of pounds if widely implemented.

California’s regulations stipulate autonomous vehicles must be tested under ‘controlled conditions’ that mimic real-world driving as closely as possible. Usually, that has meant a private test track or temporarily closed public road.

But Ron Medford, Google’s safety director for the self-driving car programme, has been arguing that the computer simulation should be accepted instead. In a letter in early 2014 to California state officials, which the Guardian has obtained under freedom of information legislation, Medford wrote: ‘Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track.’

He added: ‘Google wants to ensure that [the regulation] is interpreted to allow manufacturers to satisfy this requirement through computer-generated simulations.'”

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The opening of Mark Harris’ Guardian report on the FBI’s investigation into robocars, which could be deployed as fleets of driverless taxis or as automated bomb-delivery systems–or both:

“Google’s driverless car may remain a prototype, but the FBI believes the ‘game changing’ vehicle could revolutionise high-speed car chases within a matter of years. The report also warned that autonomous cars may be used as ‘lethal weapons.’

In an unclassified but restricted report obtained by the Guardian under a public records request, the FBI predicts that autonomous cars ‘will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.’

In a section called Multitasking, the report notes that ‘bad actors will be able to conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today.’

One nightmare scenario could be suspects shooting at pursuers from getaway cars that are driving themselves.”

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