November 28, 2012
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At The Oakland Futurist:
November 15, 2012
I decided to rename my blog to “The Oakland Futurist” and move it off of wordpress.com so that I can have more control over it and customize it more easily. Gretchen designed it so I decided to dedicate my first post on the new site to her. (Also it was her birthday today.)
Please check this site for new posts:
The Oakland Futurist: http://oaklandfuturist.com/
November 11, 2012
I vacillate between optimism and pessimism when I consider the trajectory of human history. On the one hand I am sympathetic to the optimists like Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley. They are able to show a large body of data that supports a narrative of human progress. On the other hand, I can see why scientists and hippies alike are concerned that human population growth could damage the biosphere‘s ability to sustain humans. Unlike the hippies, I acknowledge that an anti-technology, back-to-nature approach would also result in a massive die-off of the human population. (Pol Pot had a back-to-nature plan.) Also, going back-to-nature would simply reset the timer since humans (perhaps more than other living things) seem to have these cooperative and competitive threads intertwined. Groups of humans that cooperate to create technology will always outcompete groups with weaker technology.
I assume that we will need to innovate our way out of this population problem. I don’t buy the idea that humans will give up materialism en masse and switch to a non-consumptive knowledge-based economy as some authors suggest. ( At least not until we get Matrix quality Virtual Reality.) Though the paper just cited is probably correct that this innovation inevitably feeds into a singularity event that will move humans to a “qualitatively new level.” I guess I prefer the devil-we-can’t-know to a probable human semi-extinction outcome. Go Singularity!
The path to this human-salvation-level innovation is definitely rocky though. I have brought up Thiel’s concerns about the stagnation of innovation. And there seem to be perverse market incentives in place to wring every last drop of dinosaur juice out of the earth. (Seriously, the insurance companies need to stand up to big oil at some point.) We need more of our plutocrat overlords to get into electric cars, solar energy, and rockets to Mars like Elon Musk.
Ok, so are you getting the idea that this blog is not entirely about starry-eyed techno-optimism? Good, read on. The reason I am writing this post is that an acquaintance from my Futurist meetup sent me a NY Times article on human augmentation. This article digs into actual augmentation that is happening today: from brain implants that help paralyzed people operate artificial limbs to drugs like Provigil which some people use to help them perform better when then skip sleep.
I am most concerned about the security of computerized augmentation though. Cochlear implants are being used by hundreds of thousands of people right now. These devices “require and enable remote programming.” Devices to restore vision to the blind are in early stage development as well, along with exoskeletons to help the physically disabled. All of these devices will require software. Software requires updates. Herein lies a problem.
There is a great line in Ghost in the Shell where an agent says to an enemy: “Sorry pal, I had to hack your eyes” and then kills him. GITS was actually fairly prescient with their take on cyberwarcraft. (The series deeply explores transhumanism as well, I highly recommend it. Don’t be distracted by the sexy outfits, this is fairly cerebral stuff.) Some might mistakenly assume that these augmentation devices are designed with security in mind. But they aren’t. One researcher showed how he could hack his own insulin pump at BlackHat last year.
Some might also mistakenly assume that computer security is effective even when effort is taken to implement it. Consider botnets, which are massive collections (millions!) of infected computers under the control of hackers. It’s hard to measure botnets, but there is no question that millions of machines are at work generating spam every day. You see, the old days of naughty vandal hackers is mostly past. Now hacking is mostly a business based on stealing your stuff: computing resources, financial account information, intellectual property, etc. (Well there is also the whole cyberwar thing.) So hackers do everything they can to evade detection.
I work with computer systems for a living, so I need to deal with security to do my job and I follow the trends. At BlackHat/DefCon this year, I was depressed by the general consensus that the computer security was effectively useless against Advanced Persistent Threats (APT). Look at hacks like Aurora, Night Dragon, and the RSA hack. Our best technology, energy, and defence companies were cracked open and looted of intellectual property worth billions by some estimates. APT is basically a targeted attack where the attacker knows what victim they want to hit as opposed to general attacks that just scan the internet to find any vulnerable system. These types of attacks are fiendishly difficult to defend against. The database approach used by most AntiMalware software is fairly effective against non-targeted attacks of opportunity. But to populate a database of APT attack vectors, you need data sharing and that is a whole other can of worms. “Look how I got hacked, Mr. Corporate Competitor.” “Sure, go ahead and install that black box on my network Uncle Sam.”
So let’s just say that computer security is problematic. I am not trying to discourage internet usage. It seems clear that in most cases the benefits of connecting to the internet dwarf the risks from cybercrime. However there are many types of systems with different risk/reward ratios that should not be connected to the internet. But they are anyway, since administrators make mistakes or take shortcuts. Some might argue that augmentation devices will be implemented more carefully than unimportant things like power plants or facility control systems. However, whenever there is a vector there is a way.
One might wonder what real benefit hackers gain by hacking augmentation devices. Why hack eyes and ears? Doctorow and Stross explore the idea of spam being injected directly into your visual field in their recent book Rapture of the Nerds. Of course Big Brother types in governments would love to control what you see and ear and have access to those feeds as well. Really the possibilities are endless. The digital series H+ explores how augmentation might go awry. I haven’t watched it much, but this scene is fairly chilling where a bunch of augmented humans experience a malfunction of some sort.
But still, the benefits of augmentation might still outweigh the risks. I do think that augmentation will probably be the best way to avoid getting mown down by superhuman AI. Nonetheless, we might not have a choice in the matter. There may well come a day when anyone without augmentation will be as helpless as a modern information worker without internet access. The augmented will simply outcompete everyone else.
November 7, 2012
No, the title of this post is not meant to refer to Paleo Future the blog about futures that never happened. Though every futurist will want to check that blog out and see what other predictions went astray beside flying cars. I have been arguing with my friend about this idea that something was lost when the European aristocracy was pushed aside by democracy. I am disinclined to agree with that point of view, but I found one of his criticisms quite odd. He suggested that it was strange for a futurist who believes in progress to resist the reintroduction of past ideas. That seemed counterintuitive to me. Progress relies on new ideas, right? Well maybe not.
One could make the argument that modern lifestyles are socially isolating and largely unhealthy in terms of diet and exercise. (In the developed world at least.) Promoters of the Paleo diet suggest that humans evolved to consume a diet of vegetables and meat with no grains or refined foods. That’s sort of the reintroduction of an old idea. Of course some people take exception to it and I guess we did evolve more amylase genes to deal with agriculture. And it’s hard to find the wild herbs and Megaloceros steaks that cavemen supposedly thrived on. Also, our ancestors didn’t think about this diet in the same way we do today. I assume they would have preferred some nutrient rich grains if they could get their paws on some.
Next please consider Dunbar’s Number, which is the idea that us primates only have enough smarts to fully participate in a social scene of about 150 individuals. Supposedly Gore-Tex structured their company around this idea and restricted the size of each office and factory to less than 150 primates. Again, here we see a modern lifestyle (work style?) developed in response to a model of natural constraints. I can believe that people are happier in villages. (or at least Danish villages) But I hate the provincialism of the traditional village. I prefer the idea a more modern version (i.e. intentional communities) where people can choose to live together with others who share their values.
In Mothers and Others, Sarah Hrdy points out that humans are unique among great apes in the way that mothers will allow others to hold their babies. In contrast, baboon mothers won’t let anyone near their babies. Also, humans have a high level of child food provisioning by non-relatives compared to other creatures. Hrdy makes some interesting arguments that this situation increased human cognition because only babies that could understand how to get care from a range of adults would be able to survive. Modern parents are probably much more stressed than their prehistoric (or Global South) counterparts who have extended families and friends close by to help care for children. Parenting co-ops are one modern idea that came about in response to this problem.
Notice the theme here is that we are developing new ideas which try to emulate previous ways of living. Stephenson wrote about the emergence of Neo-Victorians in his novel the Diamond Age. The example of Polyface farms also comes to mind. They try to take advantage of the synergistic relationship between cows and chickens using modern portable electric fencing. All these ideas are based on our increasing knowlege of natural systems. There are parallels to old ideas, but I find them more refined. Of course, not as refined as those aristocratic lords of old were. I am not sure how to reinvent the value they provided.
November 4, 2012
I met a friend for a chat this evening and we walked down Piedmont avenue having the aristocrat vs commoner argument. I am not sure I fully understood his position, but it seemed to be that something was lost as the European landed aristocracy was supplanted by democracy. Sophisticated statescraft honed across centuries was cast aside and replaced with what? (cough – there used to be two new wars a year there, for 600 years) Democrats are nothing but unwashed merchants and tradesmen with no sense of decorum. I have had a similar argument at the Less Wrong party before the Singularity Summit. One fellow there was arguing that democracies have led to a spiritual decay. I get confused when these hard rationalists start throwing the word “spiritual” around so I asked for clarification. Another participant supplied this example: Spirituality is the idea that Wagner is in some way superior to Britney Spears.
Ah, these reactionaries, they do strike a chord don’t they? This recollection recalls to mind the great Moldbug-Hanson debate of Foresight 2010. Moldbug said bring back the monarchs (Steve Jobs for Dictator!) and Hanson said let the markets rule us. I guess I have to side with Hanson’s markets though my heart more truly lies with the democrats throughout history who have distributed the decision making power beyond the elites. But I digress from my digression.
As we walked down Piedmont avenue this evening, the topic turned to Culture. “Surely no artist today could match the majesty of the Sistine Chapel?” my friend asked. So we have lost something. Well I guess that’s true, but the sponsors of this wondrous propaganda piece also gave us the charming Inquisition:
for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit
Good stuff. Besides, I haven’t seen it in person, but that Sistine Chapel art doesn’t really speak to me. I don’t much go for that tacky Italian stuff with panel mushed upon panel and every nook and cranny bursting with cherubs and whatnot. And I have some reservations about this God fellow that plays a prominent role. What about us humans down here? I can’t get into classical music much either, certainly not that overblown Wagner stuff. I might literally prefer Britney. I can handle a nice mellow Brahms sonata here and there, but since we can still access classical culture, what have we really lost?
Art should give expression to those things we are feeling but cannot express. “Are we so stunted emotionally?” asked my friend? Yes! Those of us who cannot paint or dance or write literature or play music are all stunted. We cannot express ourselves in these media, so the artist that shows us something we can relate to in film or music or art has given a new voice to our yearning and suffering and joy. This is a gift of illumination. Damn, it makes me want to go look at art or something.
That’s when a bunch of Mills College students butted into the conversation. Some lamented this loss of culture, others saw a paternalistic threat in this yearning (justified or not.) One young woman (who I will call the Liberal) brought up the good point that great art is certainly being made now, but we can’t see which of it is timeless until it’s been tested by time. She did mention Coltrane as a likely candidate. Certainly some scribblers worthy of note have emerged in this uncouth age.
The Liberal’s sparring partner (the Conservative) countered that we are isolated from one another and distracted by trivialities like “Jersey Shore.” So we can’t talk to one another and our attention spans have decayed to 140 characters. The Liberal defended the great pluralism of the USA and pointed out that she saw the Conservative take part in the community of a music show. I agree with this. At one time no peasant could travel more than 20 miles from their place of birth. They had no choice but to accept the religion and culture of their village. But today we have the freedom to go and find our own intentional communities or just Futurist meetups as the case may be. Sure the old culture offered comfort, and freedom is hard but the old cultures mostly sucked actually.
Take genital mutilation. That’s cultural. I place it right along side of the Sistine Chapel as an example of culture. Most of the Mills Students agreed that we need to take the good and leave the bad behind in regard to the old cultures. But I wonder how divisible cultural artifacts truly are. Is the Sistine Chapel integrally linked to oppression and Inquisition? Can the beauty really be expunged of the horrors that funded it and the message it inheres? Some things were lost with the passing of Culture. Some horrible things along with the great.
No, things are not perfect now. I am not thrilled that half the world still lives on less than $1,225 a year. Call me a Whig, but I am with Pinker on the whole progress thing. Sure Jersey Shore plays on our primate need to determine the status of others, but it’s a hell of a lot better than burning cats for entertainment.
November 2, 2012
Christine Peterson started out the talks with a presentation on Quantified Self, life extension, and personalized medicine. The audience was mostly aware of QS already, but some expressed disdain for the life extension idea during the Q&A. One audience member complained that the fountain of youth has been sought for centuries but no one has delivered on the promise of extended life span. I thought that this was a bit ironic given the steady increase in life span over time and the fact that QS and modern life extension techniques haven’t really been in use long enough to show a longevity effect. However, Peterson responded with sympathy and actually said that she was more interested in health extension. She mentioned concierge doctors as a good resource to help with this.
Bosworth talked about his new startup Keas which is a corporate wellness app that uses gamefication to achieve captology. He pointed out that personalization is unhelpful in a team environment. Having just a few core health goals gives everyone a common experience to share. He listed four activities to achieve better heath: eat less food overall, eat more greens, reduce stress, and exercise more. He dismissed QS as being for Silicon Valley data geeks who were mostly healthy already. His focus is on the average American who is overweight, stressed, eats a poor diet, and neglects exercise because that is where he feels he can do the most good. He mentioned that he wanted to set aside his work on “legos for adults” and do something to help humanity.
Ahmed talked about his own experience as a care giver for older members of his family as well as his son. He presented an app he led the development of at SAP called Care Circles. This app helps care givers manage their care plans and team members. It provides assistance in building care strategies as well as journals and customizable data trackers. The social elements allow care givers to share medical data with anyone they want which bypasses HIPAA barriers to social apps that most health providers face. Ahmed mentioned that generation X was a sandwich generation having a larger population of baby boomers to care for as well as a large generation Y. I sympathized with this, having had to help with the care giving my girlfriend did during her sister’s cancer. This tool would have been really useful to keep track of progress and tasklists.
November 1, 2012
I have always been dubious of the assumption that unfriendly AI is the most likely outcome for our future. The Singularity Institute refers skeptics like myself to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s paper: Complex Value Systems are Required to Realize Valuable Futures. I just reread Yudkowsky’s argument and contrasted it with Alexander Kruel’s counterpoint in H+ magazine. H+ seems to have several articles that take exception with SI’s positions. The 2012 H+ conference in San Francisco should be interesing. I wonder how it much it will contrast with the Singularity Summit.
One thing that bothers me about Yudkowsky’s argument is that on the one hand he insists that AI will always do exactly what we tell it to do, not what we mean for it to do, but somehow this rigid instruction set could be flexible enough to outsmart all of humanity and tile the solar system with smiley faces. There is something inconsistent in this position. How can something be so smart that it can figure out nanotechnology but so stupid that it thinks smiley faces are a good outcome? It’s sort of a grey goo argument.
It seems ridiculous to even try constraining something with superhuman intelligence. Consider this Nutrient Gradient analogy:
- Bacteria value nutrient gradients.
- Humans evolved from bacteria achieving a comparable IQ increase to that which a superhuman AI might achieve as it evolves.
- A superhuman AI might look upon human values the same way we view bacterial interest in nutrient gradients. The AI would understand why we think human values are important, but it would see a much broader picture of reality.
Of course this sets aside the problem that humans don’t really have many universally shared values. Only Western values are cool. All the rest suck.
And this entire premise that an algorithm can maximize for X doesn’t really hold water when applied to a complex reflexive system like a human smile. I mean how do you code that? There is a vigorous amount of hand waving involved there. I can see detecting a smile, but how to you code for all the stuff needed to create change in the world? A program that can create molecular smiley faces by spraying bits out to the internet? Really? But then I just don’t buy recursively self-improving AI in the first place.
Not that I am against the Singularity Institute like some people are, far from it. Givewell.org doesn’t think that SI is a good charity to invest in, but I agree with my friend David S. that they are poorly equipped to even evaluate existential risk (Karnofsky admits existential risk analysis is only a GiveWell Lab project). I for one am very happy that the Singularity Institute exists. I disagree that their action might be more dangerous than their inaction. I would much rather live in the universe where their benevolent AI God rules than one where the DARPA funded AI God rules. Worse yet would be a Chinese AI implementing a galaxy wide police state.
This friendliness question is in some ways a political question. How should we be ruled? I was talking with one of the SI related people at Foresight a couple of years ago and they were commenting about how much respect they were developing for the US Constitution. The balance of powers between the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary is cool. It might actually serve as good blueprint for friendly AI. Monarchists (and AI singleton subscribers) rightly point out that a good dictator can achieve more good than a democracy can with all it’s bickering. But a democracy is more fault tolerant, at least to the degree that it avoids the problem of one bad dictator screwing things up. Of course Lessig would point out our other problems. But politics is messy, similar to all human cultural artifacts. So again, good luck coding for that.