Fearing Artificial Intelligence

by Ali Minai

ScreenHunter_1341 Aug. 31 10.48Artificial Intelligence is on everyone's mind. The message from a whole panel of luminaries – Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Apple founder Steve Wozniak, Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of Britain and former President of the Royal Society, and many others – is clear: Be afraid! Be very afraid! To a public already immersed in the culture of Star Wars, Terminator, the Matrix and the Marvel universe, this message might sound less like an expression of possible scientific concern and more a warning of looming apocalypse. It plays into every stereotype of the mad scientist, the evil corporation, the surveillance state, drone armies, robot overlords and world-controlling computers a la Skynet. Who knows what “they” have been cooking up in their labs? Asimov's three laws of robotics are being discussed in the august pages of Nature, which has also recently published a multi-piece report on machine intelligence. In the same issue, four eminent experts discuss the ethics of AI. Some of this is clearly being driven by reports such as the latest one from Google's DeepMind, claiming that their DQN system has achieved “human-level intelligence”, or that a robot called Eugene had “passed the Turing Test“. Another legitimate source of anxiety is the imminent possibility of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) that will make life-and-death decisions without human intervention. This has led recently to the circulation of an open letter expressing concern about such weapons, and it has been signed by hundreds of other scientists, engineers and innovators, including Musk, Hawking and Gates. Why is this happening now? What are the factors driving this rather sudden outbreak of anxiety?

Looking at the critics' own pronouncements, there seem to be two distinct levels of concern. The first arises from rapid recent progress in the automation of intelligent tasks, including many involving life-or-death decisions. This issue can be divided further into two sub-problems: The socioeconomic concern that computers will take away all the jobs that humans do, including the ones that require intelligence; and the moral dilemma posed by intelligent machines making life-or-death decisions without human involvement or accountability. These are concerns that must be faced in the relatively near term – over the next decade or two.

The second level of concern that features prominently in the pronouncements of Hawking, Musk, Wozniak, Rees and others is the existential risk that truly intelligent machines will take over the world and destroy or enslave humanity. This threat, for all its dark fascination, is still a distant one, though perhaps not as distant as we might like.

In this article, I will consider these two cases separately.

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Effective Altruism and its Blind Spots

by Grace Boey

31342.f299fdf740a5dd101f058ea5c5a78f98-e1413973538808Want to do some good in the world? There’s a good chance that (like me) you’d at least like to try. So what should you do?

There’s a bunch of reasons that might affect your answer to this question. Should you donate money, or should you volunteer time? Should you start a career in social work? What social cause resonates with you? Do you care more about animals, or army vets? How much time do various causes commit you to, and how much time do you have after meeting work and family obligations? These are common concerns that influence our charitable choices, whether we’re conscious of them or not.

Effective altruism, a growing social movement associated with philosopher Peter Singer, hopes to bring this decision-making process to the forefront of our consciousness. To be more precise: followers of the movement seek to act in the way that brings about the greatest measurable impact, given the resources they have. Effective altruism concerns itself not just with doing good, but finding the best way to do so. And according to (some) effective altruists, the best way for most people to do good is ‘earning to give’, which is exactly what it sounds like: earning lots of money, then giving it away to charity. And not just any charity—in order to maximise good, effective altruists seek to donate to the most cost-effective foundations out there.

Sounds promising? … Maybe.

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The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 1: Issues, Fact, and Fiction

by Paul Braterman

What is the purpose of this examination?

We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and that is all.


Dayton Courthouse today

Inherit the Wind, the prism through which the public sees the Scopes Trial, is a travesty. William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes, was neither a buffoon nor a biblical literalist but moved by deep concerns that continue to merit attention. He did not protest at the leniency of Scopes's punishment, but offered to pay the fine out of his own pocket. Nor did he collapse in defeat at the end of the trial, but drove hundreds of miles, and delivered two major speeches, before dying in his sleep a week later. Scopes, on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee state school, was never at risk of prison. He was no martyr, but a willing participant in a test case, actively sought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and his subsequent career was as geologist, not school teacher. He was found guilty, quite understandably given the wording of the law. On appeal, his conviction was quashed on a technicality, bypassing the need to rule on the deeper issues, much to the dismay of his supporters. Worse; on what we would now regard as the crucial issue, whether the law against teaching evolution in State schools violated the constitutional separation of Church and State, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that

We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship.

The law prohibiting the teaching of evolution affected textbooks for a while, but its impact was fading within a decade. However, it was not repealed until 1967, when Soviet accomplishments in space were forcing Americans to examine the state of US science education. A similar law, passed in Arkansas through citizens' initiative, survived until 1968, when in Epperson v Arkansas, the US Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on teaching evolution was based on religion and therefore unconstitutional. As for the doctrine that creationism itself is religion, not science, and therefore should not be taught in public schools, that was not established in the US courts until McLean v Arkansas,1982 and at Supreme Court level Edwards v Aguillard, 1987, Justice Scalia dissenting.

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The Magical Dimensions of the Globe

by Charlie Huenemann

WhoGlobeThere’s a particularly good episode of Doctor Who (“The Shakespeare Code”) wherein the Doctor and Martha visit Shakespeare and save the world from a conspiracy of witches. The witches’ plan is to take possession of Shakespeare and force him to write magical incantations into the (now lost) play Love’s Labours Won. (It’s not really magic, of course, but some quantum dynamical dimension of psychic energy… well, whatever.) When the play is then performed in the Globe Theater and the psychic words are spoken, a transgalactic portal will open up, through which an entire population of witches – really, in fact, members of an alien species known as the Carrionites – will march through and take over the world. Luckily, the Doctor is wise to the plans, and he and Martha improvise a counter-spell on the spot and disaster is thereby averted.

It’s crucial to the plot that the witchy words be spoken in the Globe, because the witches had previously forced its architect to frame the theater according to magical dimensions: fourteen symmetrical walls into which some sort of string-theoretic alchemical pentagram might be interpolated, or something like that. The point is, the layout of the place is critical for the magic to do its work.

I have recently been reading Frances Yates’ classic work of history, The Art of Memory (1966), which suggests that this latter point may not be so far fetched. Yates was a formidable scholar of the European renaissance, and her rich book details a strain of magical thinking about how the art of memory can bring a soul into harmony with the deep nature of things.

The art of memory goes way back. Ancient authors like Simonides, Quintilian, and Cicero recommend using vivid images to help recall anything from lists of names to long passages from speeches. Images drawn from mythology, or the zodiac, or well-known public monuments like the Parthenon might all be employed creatively as mnemonic devices.

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In praise of footpaths

by Emrys Westacott

As an expatriate Brit who has lived in North America for many years, I have sometimes been asked what I miss most about the old country. There's plenty to miss, of course: draught bitter; prime minister's question time; red phone boxes; racist tabloid newspapers; Henderson's Yorkshire Relish; gray rainy afternoons, especially at the seaside in July. But my answer is always the same: I miss the footpaths.

IMG_0515I was reminded of this once again this summer when I made my biennial trip back to Blighty. For one week of the trip a small family group rented a house in Derbyshire (my home county) and spent most days hiking around various parts of the Peak District, the marvelously varied and beautiful national park that sits inside a great horseshoe of urban sprawl running South from metropolitan Manchester in the West, through the Potteries in Staffordshire towards the Birmingham, East towards Derby and Nottingham, and then back up North towards Sheffield.

The weather wasn't always great–no surprise there: we are, after all, talking about England in July–but for hiking it was fine: not too hot, and with the occasional shower to freshen things up. But there are two things that make walking in the British countryside so enjoyable: the infinitely interesting landscape; and the great network of footpaths that allow you to walk from anywhere to anywhere by a dozen different routes. Plus the fact that if you plan things right you can end your walk at a tea shop where you can get a pot of tea with a scone, raspberry jam, and clotted cream. (OK, that's three things.) Or at a pub. (four)

Two thousand years ago most of Britain was covered with trees. Over time the land was deforested as people used wood for fuel and construction and opened up land for grazing cattle and sheep. As a result the rural landscape today in places like Derbyshire has an open character, a combination of fields, small woods, grassy hills, and heather-covered moorland. This means that the topography of the region is more revealed, and revealing, than in places where forest dominates the landscape: the rocks, cliffs, streams, gullies, and ground vegetation are not hidden behind or beneath a dense covering of trees.

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The Lunch Box

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

On a plane ride to Mumbai last week, I bought oatmeal cookies. For a fleeting second, I thought about sharing them with my surly co-passenger, who had been looking straight ahead ever since occupying the middle seat right next to my windowed one. If I had a middle seat, I might be surly too. I thought the cookies would help. But then the thought remained just that, fleeting. In the sum total of a minute, I played in my head the awkwardness of first contact, the shaking of head by my equally awkward interlocutor, and then my consequent retreat into the “I told you so” shell. Having successfully pre-empted my unnecessary state of embarrassment in the world, I proceeded therefore to not offer him a cookie. And there in that one stroke, I become part of a world full of strangers shedding candy.

IMG_20150831_091556As children, my friends and I were taught to share food. Every morning, we set off from home groggy-eyed and heavy-footed with our variously colored backpacks stuffed with notebooks, pencils, and lunch bags with food, water, and sometimes, a lonely apple or banana. So armored, we set off to face the universe.By the time lunch-time came around, we were all in states of feverish excitement, trying to anticipate our own and others' lunch choices. Some of us were the steady kinds, bringing rice, vegetables, and dal. The others brought home and regional specificities; idlis and dosas, parathas, curd rice and lemon rice, gossamer thin rotis, once crisp puris but now soggy with the long wait for lunchtime, chutneys of various persuasions (coconut and mint and tomato), and those objects of much desire, bread rolls stuffed with spicy potato curry. The trendier homes sent sandwiches. In an age where our collective imagination was colonized by a rural Enid Blyton-esque England of wafer thin cucumber sandwiches and strawberry jam scones, this was definitely cosmopolitan. Small matter that I did not think jam was all that great. I nevertheless begged my hapless mother who was up at the crack of dawn to knead dough for the wonderful potato parathas I carried, to instead make me every other thing the other children brought. She did no such thing. So I scoffed down their sandwiches, and others ate my idlis and parathas.

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Can free speech survive the internet?

by Thomas R. Wells

OriginalThe internet has made it easier than ever to speak to others. It has empowered individuals, allowing us to publish our opinions without convincing a publishing company of their commercial value; to find and share others' views on matters we concern ourselves with without the fuss of photocopying and mailing newspaper clippings; and to respond to those views without the limitations of a newspaper letter page. In this sense the internet has been a great boon to the freedom of speech.

Yet that very ease of communication has brought problems of its own that may actually limit the freedom part of free speech, the ability to speak our mind to those we wish without fear of reprisal.


The first problem is that what was once a difficult endeavour – to bring our words to the attention of others – is becoming difficult to avoid. An increasing amount of speech and its proxies, such as the expression of preferences, is subject to automatic publication to the world. If not by us, if we are very careful with all our privacy settings, then by the devices and apps of those we talk to. It is becoming hard to guarantee a private conversation.

That matters because the way one expresses oneself in conversation, to specific people, is not how one sets out one's thoughts to the world, when one is trying to reach and impress strangers with one's ideas. The old difference between speech and publication, and all the pains publication required, respected that distinction.

Speech is extemporary. It is often part of an ongoing relationship in which the parties know each other and have a common knowledge and context to relate to. It may be experimental in style and content, especially between people who know each other well, reflecting not your settled views but ideas you are curious about and phrasings your want to try out. There are often bad jokes and failed lines of reasoning and backtrackings, and this is normal and forgivable because everyone understands that conversation is dialectical, an attempt to make progress together. In persuading another it is normal to reach for the ad hominem approach, to adapt your arguments to the capacities, inclinations, and beliefs of those one is talking to.

Publication in contrast is – or was – a distinct and daunting undertaking, requiring much diligence and prudence in framing a particular expression of your ideas that may stand the test of the scrutiny of all sorts of readers without your being able to step in to explain what you meant.

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Restoring Henry Kissinger

Michael O'Donnell in Washington Monthly:

1509-odonnell_bk_article01In 1940 the young Henry Kissinger, caught in a love quadrangle, drafted a letter to the object of his affections. Her name was Edith. He and his friends Oppus and Kurt admired her attractiveness and had feelings for her, the letter said. But a “solicitude for your welfare” is what prompted him to write—“to caution you against a too rash involvement into a friendship with any one of us.”

I want to caution you against Kurt because of his wickedness, his utter disregard of any moral standards, while he is pursuing his ambitions, and against a friendship with Oppus, because of his desire to dominate you ideologically and monopolize you physically. This does not mean that a friendship with Oppus is impossible, I would only advise you not to become too fascinated by him.

Kissinger disclaimed any selfish motive for writing, loftily quoted from Washington’s farewell address, and regretted with some bitterness Edith’s failure to read or comment on the two school book reports he had sent her. Would she please return them for his files?

It is unfair to judge a man’s character by a jealous letter that he drafted (and did not send) at age sixteen. Yet here, to a remarkable extent, is the future nuclear strategist, national security advisor, and secretary of state. The reference to Edith’s attractiveness bespeaks the charm and flattery for which Kissinger would become famous. Secrecy and deceit are present also: he went behind his friends’ backs and coyly advised against a relationship with “any one of us,” which of course really meant the other guys. By trashing his buddies in order to get a girl, Kissinger displayed ruthlessness. The letter is written in what Christopher Hitchens memorably described as Kissinger’s “dank obfuscatory prose,” which relies on clinical-sounding phrases like “dominate you ideologically.” And, of course, the letter betrays vanity. How could anyone fail to be dazzled by his book reports!

More here.

Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

Lydia Kiesling in The Millions:

0374239215.01.LZZZZZZZThere are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project — one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed…by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”

Ironically, the Internet — the thing with which Franzen’s opprobrium is most frequently associated — is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”

No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.”

More here.

Subatomic particles that appear to defy Standard Model points to undiscovered forces

Hannah Osborne in Yahoo! News:

B319b014aa974f57dcbd87b237ecdecdSubatomic particles have been found that appear to defy the Standard Model of particle physics. The team working at Cern's Large Hadron Collider have found evidence of leptons decaying at different rates, which could possibly point to some undiscovered forces.

Publishing their findings in the journal Physical Review Letters, the team from the University of Maryland had been searching for conditions and behaviours that do not fit with the Standard Model. The model explains most known behaviours and interactions of fundamental subatomic particles, but it is incomplete – for example it does not adequately explain gravity, dark matter and neutrino masses.

Researchers say the discovery of the non-conforming leptons could provide a big lead in the search for non-standard phenomenon. The Standard Model concept of lepton universality assumes leptons are treated equally by fundamental forces.

They looked at B meson decays including two types of leptons – the tau lepton and the muon, both of which are highly unstable and decay within just a fraction of a second. The tau lepton and muon should decay at the same rate after mass differences are corrected. But the researchers found small but important differences in the predicted rates of decay.

More here.

America’s Self-Inflicted Wound in Syria

Frederic C. Hof in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_1338 Aug. 30 20.14On Aug. 16, Syrian regime aircraft bombed a vegetable market in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, slaughtering over 100 Syrian civilians and wounding some 300 more. Many of the victims were children; it was one of the deadliest airstrikes of a brutal war. This is far from the first regime-committed atrocity in a Damascus suburb: Exactly two years ago today, Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, which killed hundreds. In the case of the Douma attack, President Barack Obama’s administration reacted with its usual pantomime of outrage: strong verbal condemnation, condolences for the families of victims, and a plea that the international community “do more to enable a genuine political transition in Syria.”

A genuine political transition in Syria, however, is not right around the corner. Yet every airstrike by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is fueling radicalization in the Syrian here and now. The only clear winner in the Douma abomination was the pseudo “caliph” of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a hardened criminal who recruits followers courtesy of the Iranian-sponsored Assad regime’s atrocities and Western complacency. Iran and Assad know exactly what they are doing by bolstering this evil. The West, meanwhile, is complacently unresponsive.

More here.

Oliver Sacks, RIP

Oliver Sacks has died. As my friend John Ballard has said, “He taught us how to live and die gracefully.” John also sent me this article by Sacks which appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago:

ScreenHunter_1337 Aug. 30 15.34In December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

More here. Obituary from The Guardian is here.

The Psychotropic Internet GIFs of Peekasso

From Vice:

ComicPut the internet, vintage TV, and C-SPAN's funniest home videos into a blender, and what you pour out might look something like the GIF art of German-American artist Peekasso. A quick glance at his Tumblr melts eyes with an avalanche of strobing fluorescent colors, heavily Photoshopped cultural icons, and ideological statements that range from the subtle and thought-provoking, to the politically incorrect, over-the-top, and unabashedly honest.

Peekasso, whose given name is Peter Stemmler, immigrated to the United States in 1997, and started the successful illustration company Quickhoney with artist Nana Rausch three years later. In 2007, he began putting personal projects on a the Peekasso Tumblr, filling it with stylized memes of Spock, Mr. T, and then-Senator Obama. In 2011 he began experimenting with GIFs, “out of boredom,” he tells The Creators Project. Here's his very first one. His frenetic GIF art style has developed over the last five years, through hundreds of graphic experiments mixing corporate and political branding, pornography, and nostaliga into a miasma of inside jokes and discomfort that reflects the miasma of online culture. “I like to see myself changing,” he says. “I don't mind my old work, but now I'm faster, more secure in my decisions, and more political.”

More here.

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins

Steven Shapin in The Guardian:

BookRichard Dawkins has had a wonderful life. He’s been happy in his scientific work on evolution, blessed (if that’s a permissible word) by smooth good looks and contented in his (third) marriage. He’s been given joy by his collaborators and colleagues and taken pleasure in poetry and music, even religious music. He’s collected bouquets of honorary degrees, including one from Valencia, which, he tells us, gave special delight because it came with a “tasselled lampshade” cap, and he has both an asteroid and a genus of fish named after him. Oxford college life has been sweet, and he’s been fulfilled by his role as public intellectual, defender of scientific reason, secular saint and hammer of the godly, switching from the zoology department in 1995 to a new endowed chair which allowed him to work full-time on “the public understanding of science”. His books – from The Selfish Gene (1976), River Out of Eden (1995) and The God Delusion (2006) to the first volume of his autobiography An Appetite for Wonder (2013) – have been successful, well-received, and, as Dawkins proudly notes, are all still in print. They have sold extraordinarily well – more than 3m copies of The God Delusion alone – making their author comfortably off as well as famous. According to the notions he coined, both selfish genes and memes want to make lots of copies of themselves, but there must be some genes or memes that haven’t been as successful as Dawkins himself.

Where once the humanists and philosophers were cocks of the cultural walk, now Dawkins can claim without argument that there are “deep philosophical questions that only science can answer”. There are no mysteries, just as-yet-unsolved scientific problems: “Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information.” The culture wars are over; science has won and Dawkins is confident that he has played a non-trivial role in that victory. Surveying the enormous change in the public prestige of science since CP Snow’s The Two Cultures (1959), he takes satisfaction that his books have been “among those that changed the cultural landscape”. Snow complained that, for some unfathomable reason, scientists were not counted as “intellectuals”. That has all changed. In 2013, readers of Prospect magazine voted Dawkins the world’s “top thinker”.

More here.

Too Much Information


Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung in Boston Review:

Americans eat out more than ever before, and their waistlines are showing it. Restaurant foods pack more calories than most patrons imagine—a single entrée or shake can contain as many as 2,000 calories—contributing to the epidemic of obesity, which affects a third of the adult population. Will information help Americans to take better care of themselves? We will soon find out. Due to new regulations, by the end of 2015, calorie counts will appear on the menus and menu boards of large restaurant chains, grocery stores, and even movie theaters.

The calorie-disclosure rule is just one of the recent attempts at legislating transparency in the hope of changing behavior without resorting to more invasive and politically difficult regulatory approaches such as banning products or setting specific product standards. For instance, police departments in Seattle, Phoenix, and Albuquerque have deployed body cameras to reduce police violence, and in December of last year, the White House called for funding to purchase an additional 50,000. Faith in cameras seems well placed: after Rialto, California, adopted cameras, the use of force by police officers dropped by almost 60 percent and complaints declined by almost 90 percent. Transparency has also been used to inspire resource conservation. U.S. utility companies have found that by sending customers information about how their energy usage compares to their neighbors’, they can induce those customers to cut down. In another example, the incidence of food-borne illnesses decreased in Los Angeles after local laws began requiring restaurants to post cleanliness scores they received from hygiene inspections. And thanks to other disclosure requirements, you can learn about school performance, local water quality, crime levels on university campuses, and vehicle safety. The Supreme Court and many others have looked to disclosure as a bulwark against the corrosive effect of money on our democratic political institutions. The applications of transparency seem boundless, its promise to empower consumers and citizens and to discipline corporations and governments considerable.

But more information does not always make things better. Where there is a glut of information, it is often ignored. Worse still, it can be misused and cause harm.

More here.