Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ceding Control to Machines That Can't Think

One of the more interesting contributions to this year's Edge question on machines that think comes from philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Don't worry about the machines that can think just yet, he says, worry about ceding control to those that can't:

I think, on the contrary, that these alarm calls distract us from a more pressing problem, an impending disaster that won't need any help from Moore's Law or further breakthroughs in theory to reach its much closer tipping point: after centuries of hard-won understanding of nature that now permits us, for the first time in history, to control many aspects of our destinies, we are on the verge of abdicating this control to artificial agents that can't think, prematurely putting civilization on auto-pilot.


The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.

He has some examples, but my eye was caught by this Washington Post story of the Russian spy ring that just got busted. It seems that their priority target was uncovering means for:

“destabilization of the markets” and automated trading algorithms — “trading robots.”

As the story points out:

“The acceleration of Wall Street cannot be separated from the automation of Wall Street,” wrote Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann. “Since the dawn of the computer age, humans have worried about sophisticated artificial intelligence … seizing control. But traders, in their quest for that million-dollar millisecond, have willingly handed over the reins. Although humans still run the banks and write the code, algorithms now make millions of moment-to-moment calls in the global markets.”

For evidence of what can go wrong when one of these bots goes crazy, look no further than Aug. 1, 2013. That was when a mid-size trading company named Knight Capital Group lost nearly $10 million per minute over the course of 45 minutes for a total of $440 million. The managers said it was a computer glitch, a misfiring algorithm, a complex computer program gone rogue.

“The company said the problems happened because of new trading software that had been installed,” the New York Times reported. “The event was the latest to draw attention to the potentially destabilizing effect of the computerized trading that has increasingly dominated the nation’s stock markets.”

Of course the idea of rogue trading programs ravaging the markets is really the same story of unintended consequences as Skynet.

I think, though, that the problem is not so much that the machines don't think, as that they don't think like us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's The Matter With Kansas?

Getting Outside the Beltway.

It's a commonplace that people in Washington are out of touch with the real America, middle America. Maybe it's time to move our capital to someplace more "middle American" - specifically to Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the continental United States. Or if you want to include 49 and 50 in the geo-weighting, to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, not so far from the Black Hills and the stony visages of some of our more noted leaders.

This capital moving might be disruptive, it's true, but it would create more jobs than a thousand Keystone pipelines and might shake our government out of its beltway mindset. Spain and Brazil got into the capital moving a bit earlier, not too mention many earlier such ventures, so we could learn from their mistakes. Flyover country would suddenly become flyto country. Congressional commutes would become shorter for the average Senator, not to mention the numerous minions frequently summoned to headquarters.

The need for transition would require a lot of commuting, so the country might finally get the stimulus needed to connect NY, DC and LA to the new capital by ultra high speed train - so why not throw in Chicago, Dallas and Houston too. Location on the prairie would facilitate installation of an up-to-date metro system, which, suitably augmented, could serve as very serviceable bomb shelters connected to the deep underground salt mines. There is also lots of space for some decent airports.

And, ultimately, it would turn Kansas (or South Dakota) blue.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Netanyahu Wedge

In one of their endless attempts to find wedge issues - issues that pit Americans against each other - Congressional Republicans have invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a special session of Congress, and Netanyahu has accepted. The point, it seems, is to embarrass Obama. Many US and Israeli observers think that Netanyahu in particular is playing with fire. Support for Israel has always been a nonpartisan policy in the US, but if Boehner and Netanyahu make it a partisan issue that could all change. American Jews are a tiny minority of the population, about 2%, and have traditionally voted Democratic, so they represent a small but influential voting block. That said, Netanyahu is a polarizing figure among Jews both in Israel and the US, so it's far from obvious that Republicans gain much electorally.

What they do have to gain is the Adelson primary. Sheldon Adelson, the Casino multi-billionaire, has been dumping huge sums into US politics and is a major sponsor of Netanyahu. If a lot of Americans are offended by Israeli interference in US politics, however, Israel stands to be the loser. The Constitution entrusts US foreign policy to the President, and even if Obama can set aside personal pique, if he judges Israel to be an unreliable ally and enemy of US interests in the world, he might feel obliged to act accordingly. In particular, if, as seems likely, Netanyahu is coming here to sabotage US Iran talks and gin up a US attack against Iran, how many Americans are going to stand with him on that?

From The Jewish Daily Forward

The astonishment didn’t stop at Pennsylvania Avenue but moved from there to Capitol Hill. Even Democratic lawmakers who intend to go against the administration and support new sanctions taken aback by the Boehner-Bibi move. “Netanyahu is shooting himself in the foot,” one of them said, “because by turning this into a partisan issue, he may be forcing some Democratic members to choose between Boehner and Obama, which, for them, is no choice at all.” Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, quickly shot down claims coming from both Boehner and Netanyahu that the invitation to address Congress was “bipartisan”. No one consulted with me, Pelosi said, and the invitation is “inappropriate.”

Even the leaders of mainstream Jewish groups who normally and reflexively support Netanyahu were dumbfounded: no one informed them and no one had asked their opinion. “I was literally sick to my stomach when I heard about it,” one of them told me. J-Street criticized the move, of course, but even the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called on Netanyahu and Boehner to come down from the high tree they had climbed. I support new sanctions, Foxman told Ron Kampeas at JTA, but this is “ill-advised.”

The warnings and protests started pouring into the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, which finally opted to move Netanyahu’s speaking engagement from February 11 to March 3, when it could be linked to the annual AIPAC conference. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s speech had been portrayed from the outset as an outgrowth of his wish to participate at the AIPAC get-together, much of the damage and its resonance could have been avoided. But we have this tendency to try and close the barn doors after the horses have bolted, and to stub a toe or sprain a leg in the process. Accordingly, Israel’s good name was sullied just a little bit more, it became a partisan punching bag and distanced itself further from the Democrats, it wasted far too much of the far too little credit it has left at the White House and it did a disservice to the cause which allegedly motivates Netanyahu in the first place: increasing the pressure on Iran by means of new sanctions legislation.


Netanyahu certainly seems to have forgotten that if he wins the elections and returns as prime minister, it is he who will then have to figure out how to survive for the next two years in the barren landscape and scorched earth that he left behind him this week.

Read more:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

More Edgerry

A disappointingly facile and unimaginative answer to this year's Edge question from a Classical Scholar:

1. "Thinking" is a word we apply with no discipline whatsoever to a huge variety of reported behaviors. "I think I'll go to the store" and "I think it's raining" and "I think therefore I am" and "I think the Yankees will win the World Series" and "I think I am Napoleon" and "I think he said he would be here, but I'm not sure," all use the same word to mean entirely different things. Which of them might a machine do someday? I think that's an important question.

2. Could a machine get confused? Experience cognitive dissonance? Dream? Wonder? Forget the name of that guy over there and at the same time know that it really knows the answer and if it just thinks about something else for a while might remember? Lose track of time? Decide to get a puppy? Have low self-esteem? Have suicidal thoughts? Get bored? Worry? Pray? I think not...

Get yourself out of the 0th Century, man!

Machines that Think

That's you and me bro, says Sean Carroll, responding to this year's Edge question.

Julien de La Mettrie would be classified as a quintessential New Atheist, except for the fact that there’s not much New about him by now. Writing in eighteenth-century France, La Mettrie was brash in his pronouncements, openly disparaging of his opponents, and boisterously assured in his anti-spiritualist convictions. His most influential work, L’homme machine (Man a Machine), derided the idea of a Cartesian non-material soul. A physician by trade, he argued that the workings and diseases of the mind were best understood as features of the body and brain.

As we all know, even today La Mettrie’s ideas aren’t universally accepted, but he was largely on the right track. Modern physics has achieved a complete list of the particles and forces that make up all the matter we directly see around us, both living and non-living, with no room left for extra-physical life forces. Neuroscience, a much more challenging field and correspondingly not nearly as far along as physics, has nevertheless made enormous strides in connecting human thoughts and behaviors with specific actions in our brains. When asked for my thoughts about machines that think, I can’t help but reply: Hey, those are my friends you’re talking about. We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Nothing there that I would find controversial.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Catcalling, MCP Response

Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars.

Irony usually beats earnestness.  See, e.g., the video.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Evolutionary Value of Shyness?

Well, I expect that every shy nerd has noticed that it reduced his reproductive opportunities in high school. In extreme cases it can be a paralyzing illness that isolates to the point where drastic measures are considered. (For the original, see this.)

Apparently, though, shyness is not completely negative for evolutionary success. So, at least, argued Susan Cain in the New York Times Sunday Review (some years ago).

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible (“Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?" asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.”) We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google’s Larry Page, or Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”

We even find “introverts” in the animal kingdom, where 15 percent to 20 percent of many species are watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines (sometimes called “sitters”) while the other 80 percent are “rovers” who sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings. Sitters and rovers favor different survival strategies, which could be summed up as the sitter’s “Look before you leap” versus the rover’s inclination to “Just do it!” Each strategy reaps different rewards.

Yeah, whatever. Fortunately most of us outgrow it, at least in part.

MSL - Advance Planning Required.

Mean Sea Level seems to have increased by about ten inches (250 mm) since 1870 - 3.5 inches of that in the last thirty years. The rest of the century will probably see something like another 1 to 3 feet of sea level rise, enough to seriously threaten or destroy many low-lying islands and ocean front areas. Endangered cities will cost many billion, or perhaps trillions of dollars to defend or relocate. There is every prospect that sea level rise will continue long after CO2 additions to the atmosphere stop.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

An Intelligence Greater Than Human

The Internet is the Borg. You have been assimilated.

There is an important sense in which an ant colony is "smarter" than any individual ant. It's also true that in many ways a society, in the wide sense (civilization, tribe, corporation, social club or scientific society) is smarter than any of the individual members. These collectives, working together, have information and algorithms that no individual member has, and can solve problems that no one member can. There is a fair amount of evidence that much of the evolutionary development between us and the remote ancestor we shared with chimpanzees was devoted to making us better at cooperating with each other.

From that point of view our first ventures in Artificial Intelligence was the creation of progressively more elaborate societies for sharing information, technology and algorithms.

Once the computer was created, our ability to store, manipulate, and compute was multiplied by an enormous factor. Today the internet links most of the computers and people of the planet. Together, we constitute an enormously greater intelligence than any individual human or pre-computer society.

Stop worrying about when AI will exceed human intelligence - it already happened. The only question is how long the meat part of this intelligence will remain necessary.