Category: futurism

on the artiface of intelligence…

Had one of those early-morning, overly vivid dreams: Two pairs of perfectly human-looking robots (they were ‘robots’ in the dream, not ‘androids’, so let’s use that word here). And these were Manichaean robots, apparently: One pair felt ‘good’– or at least I was supposed to feel more sympathetic towards them– and the other pair were ‘bad’.  No particular reason for the distinction was given, it was Just So.

Actions took place in an old house that was also, somehow, a laboratory environment. Right down to a few old white grey-haired men in white lab coats wandering around the periphery, clipboards and all. Something was ‘out in the car’, and the two robot-teams were ordered to compete, Hunger Games style, to retrieve the item (again, never specified– though I vaguely remember thinking it was a book or a scroll, locked in a car out in the parking lot).

The end was inevitable: The ‘good’ robots dutifully started running towards the open door. The ‘bad’ robots just grabbed them from behind, picked them up over their heads, and smashed the ‘good’ robots all-too-human faces into bits up against the top of the door frame.

That said:  Neural networks, like mini-skirts, sideburns and bell-bottoms, come in and out of fashion roughly every twenty years or so. The cycle is thus:

  1. It’s been a period of algorithmic stagnation, but damn… the hardware’s gotten a lot faster. What shall we do with it?
  2. Hey! Neural Networks! (Though maybe we should call it something else…)
  3. Great early successes. Even a few new applications. Wonder why these work so well on these problems?
  4. Clever people study the why, discover new algorithms, perhaps even new classes of algorithms…
  5. …which end up proving the old quip about “the second-best solution to any problem, once you know the first-best”.
  6. Hey, look: The hardware folks have been busy… We can run these new algorithms we’ve found much faster… let’s optimize!
  7. Possible optimizations eventually all get found. The field begins to stagnate…

Rinse, lather, repeat. But at least some interesting papers get generated.

Elon Musk went from warning us against AI in an open letter to becoming a co-founder of the OPENAI initiative in less than half a year. Obviously, his thoughts are his own, but I suspect he’s decided that the Rise of AI is inevitable, and that rather than warn against or try to prevent it, he can at least help ensure that the forefront of the research take place out in public (as it used to in bygone ages), and not in the shadowy halls of some Deep Private research lab (i.e. companies: some known, some unknown, but None To Be Named).

No one would ever accuse me of optimism, but I don’t worry much about rampant AIs taking over the planet through Terminator-style military force, or converting Earth’s surface into a puddle of grey goo. The thermodynamics of it just don’t work out: Our meat-brains are highly energy-efficient when compared to our current (and near future) computers. Yes, a computer can now beat you at Go. But it consumed several orders of magnitude more energy than you did to do so. And yes: it can also recognize your grandmother’s face, but it consumed tens of watts over a few billion instructions to do so. Your brain did it in less than 100 steps, consuming a few thousandths of a watt in the 1/2 second it took (while doing innumerable other things at the same time, I might add).

So: All dramatic competition aside, Thermodynamics Always Wins. Always. (Though that of course doesn’t preclude nasty things happening on the way to local optimum). So IMO we are ‘safe’ from that scenario, for now.

People should be more worried about the potential abuse of AI by Those Who Know Better. For now, the PTB are satisfied with using AI models to anticipate our desires  for monetization. But social media companies are already using AI to ‘shepherd’ mass opinion towards a certain flavor of bland, corporate centrism (sometimes at the behest of governments, sometimes on their own). How soon before each one of us has a virtual ‘minder’, that will watch our every move to form a complex model of our psychological internals so accurate that it could not only anticipate our responses, not only control our responses– but eventually the man-in-the-loop becomes… unnecessary. Or at least atrophies into nothing more than the slimy rock or rotted tree stump upon which something else lives and grows.

Once you’ve been successfully modeled, you can be successfully replaced. Think of it that way.

So no, giant killer robots aren’t going to autonomously slaughter us en masse, (unless of course they were ordered to by other humans– in which case, the problem was us, not them).  I worry more about (what’s left of) the Human melting away into a dank little whimper of a world that eventually dies of boredom from watching itself, like some mad self-feeding, world-sucking Silicon Ouroboros.

Here’s the tl;dr version: Your brain is not a fucking computer… Please stop acting like it is.

into the squeeze chutes…

Tell me your race, how you worship (and/or, if you do), what socio-economic class you happened to be born into, which subculture (professional or otherwise) you most identify with (again, if any) and where you live now… and I’ll have a really, really good chance at guessing:

  1. How old you think the earth is.
  2. Your opinion of climate change.
  3. Your position on gun control.
  4. Whether or not you believe in astrology. Or tarot cards. Or magic (for our purposes, this would include belief in the ‘power of prayer’)… as a Thing.
  5. Who’s funding ISIS.
  6. Putin: Villain… or Leader?
  7. Where does the oil come from? And how long will it last?
  8. The Apollo Moon Landings: Real or fake?
  9. UFOs. What are they?

Now.. why would that be?

This odd set of random little questions, across a broad swath of disconnected subjects. Some pop culture, some not.  Some political… some not.  Not one of them having any immediate effects or consequences with respect to any of our daily lives, whatsoever.

Yet, there we have it.  Disparate beliefs do seem to cluster, for some reason. Why?

We’re tribal creatures (it’s in the wiring).  But we do seem to be parceling ourselves out into different mental Tribes, more so than usually (at least within my lifetime).  And more virulently.  And with stranger and stranger shibboleth to distinguish them from one another.

Reaction to a stressful era?  Signs and Portents of the End Times? Just feeling the slide towards some (alleged) inevitable Collapse coming sometime around 2040?  Fun fact: That last thought-berg broke the surface in all sorts of oddly correlated places,… but the subtext of the “Business Insurance” article amused me most:

“Rest assured, Citizens: the actuaries who compute your insurance tables are well aware of the situation, and have already updated their analytical models to account for any potential disturbances.”.

We’re deep in the post-post-post-post-modern era.  There is no shortage of available scripts for the future.

But I don’t much like the current table of scripts.  They all suck.  They all ‘rhyme’.  And they all have the same shitty, trite, pointless ending.

‘Indie Capitalism’: Once you name it, it’s a Thing.

After yesterday’s rant on the Great Inevitable Future of Work, I stumble onto this article in WiReD about ‘Indie Capitalism’. This article, itself, quotes another article in Businessweek on the same subject– arguably a more mainstream/non-techie publication, which indicates that the idea has ‘arrived’, I suppose.

So, ‘Indie Capitalism’ now has a name. Which means that it is now a Thing (ie a meme or concept that I now expect to see mentioned or bandied about all over the place over the next few months).

Another cultural indicator: Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on ‘The Art of Asking’ (via boingboing), giving a pop-musician’s view on how to use Kickstarter and social media. Note that the self-named ‘Happy Mutant’ set is precisely the well-off, largely self-employed demographic I referred to yesterday, so those circles bear watching.

I’ll just wryly note that now that ‘Indie Capitalism’ is a Cool Thing, then (almost by definition) that means that exclusionary networks are sure to arise (or existing ones re-enforced) to limit access to the Cool Thing… because otherwise, the Thing would cease to be Cool.

This was essentially what I was trying to get at with yesterday’s post– Damien Walter’s article is the only one I’ve read on the subject that doesn’t make the implicit assumption that all class/social barriers to entry to this new ‘regime of work’ are either already gone, or about to disappear.

contra leisuretopia (some random thoughts).

Just wanted to make note of an interesting article by sci-fi author Damien Walter in aeon magazine about the possibility of a ‘creative culture’ arising in the near future, as the natural result of increased automation and our current, inexorable shift towards a pure-knowledge economy.

The article falls in line with current thoughts and assumptions about the Great Inevitable Future of Work. It’s not an unusual vision by now: Most of the drudge-labor gets delegated to machines. Most manufacturing is done on-site via 3D printers. The now-displaced labor class then somehow gets magically educated into the ‘knowledge economy’, and voila!, fast forward— It’s the late 21st century! And all nine billion souls on the planet are earning a living wage by doing 10-15 hrs a week of freelance work (all funded on Kickstarter, of course) on their laptops at the local cafe!

I’ll just politely note that these claims are invariably made by well-born, well-educated, well-off, well-connected and generally self-employed types who already inhabit a world that looks much like this. It’s a very nice, pleasant and well-meaning vision (though I can’t help but wonder how much of it is unconsciously driven by guilt: Don’t worry, unemployed laborers… soon you’ll all get to live and work like we do! Just be patient!) While I agree in principle that such a society is theoretically possible (and may in fact be one of the few pleasant near-futures available to us), to ignore issues of custom, law and class –not to mention human nature– when talking about the transition always seemed somewhat naive to me.

Which is why this article jumped out at me: Mr. Walter actually mentions class. Money quote:

As much as our social hierarchies are about limiting and controlling access to wealth, they are also about limiting and controlling access to creativity. Increasingly, the real benefit that money buys is the time, freedom and power to act creatively.

Bingo. I’ll also note, without comment, that only a Brit could have written the above English sentence so honestly, and gotten it published. (Here in the US, you can’t even utter the words ‘social hierarchy’ in most circles without being greeted by eyerolls– we’re quite well trained in that respect).

At least here in the first world, while we clearly haven’t banished poverty or inequity (far from it), all but the very poorest among us can afford at least some degree of what would have been considered physical plenty by their ancestors. They don’t live in rags, as the pre-Revolutionary French peasants would have done. Many have ‘luxuries’ like HDTVs, a cellphone, and often some kind of vehicle (albeit a used one). Once mere possession of an object could no longer serve as a suitable class marker, the discriminating factor became Quality. Compare a 1975 BMW or Mercedes against a 1975 Ford or Chevy, for example. Most of us got access to automobiles by that point, thanks to a half-century of Fordism… but only the Quality could afford the Best (or vice versa).

But in the ensuing decades, manufacturing has become so efficient that we now live in a world where lower-end products have almost equivalent utility to their higher-end counterparts: Going back to our car example, compare a 2012 BMW to a 2012 Ford or Honda, and you’ll note much less difference-in-quality between the two than there would have been 35+ years prior. Is the $1800 Mac better than the $900 PC with equivalent specs? IMO, yes, it still is. Is it twice as good or useful? No. No it isn’t. The surplus is for that logo– which, you’ll note, is conspicuously placed on the backside of the laptop, for others to see. Not you.

IMO, this is what has driven our current era’s obsession with ‘Branding’ and ‘Mindshare’. Our cultural wiring still requires Discriminators, so we insist they are there when they’re really not. Clothing would be another area where the only real discriminator at this point is the trademarked icon put there by the manufacturer: Since almost anyone can afford a decent shirt, pants and shoes nowadays, those little icons on your chest are all that’s left to announce your social status, economic worth, general class and tribal affiliation to any passers-by who might wish to evaluate you. Those sigils by Apple, Nike, Champion or BMW are essentially the current incarnation of tribal tattoos, put there for others to see. Not you.

Back to Walter’s article: Leisure time has of course been a class marker for at least as long as there has been such a thing as social hierarchies: It was never coincidence that the Throne was a seat, before which you stood (or knelt, or groveled). But, with increased automation and lesser need for human labor, ‘leisure’ has become available to more people than ever before (ironically, even in the case of the chronically un-/under-employed, who would perhaps prefer to be less idle). So, as with Branding, the game has to change to suit our habitual nature– and I believe Walter’s quote up above points out our current quandary very nicely.

I live in a country where people argue against food stamps/unemployment insurance because some cunning idler might use them to buy cigarettes, or booze, or cellphones (none of these claims are objectively true, since purchases are limited by category, but cross-tribal hatreds run strong in an era of perceived decline). Few seem willing to pay to educate the entire American populace up the economic food chain, either. Nor does our current economy seem able to create jobs for all those who do manage to get educated above their birth-class. So it’s not clear to me how we’re supposed to transition from our current state of affairs to some post-Labor Leisure Culture. We can’t all start businesses, Capital is too scarce (ie the banks would never fund them all). We can’t all go freelance, because there are only so many slots available, and so many barriers to entry and gatekeepers in the way.

Most serious thinkers seem to realize the necessary End Game at this point, but none seem to have a serious, believable, achievable path to get there without some massive (and very unlikely) mass-transformation in the culture and psychology of those currently living.

I’ll let Mr Walter finish the topic, since it was his article that got me started:

We need to learn this lesson as a culture. We have to place the human capacity to create at the very centre of our social and political life. Instead of treating it as a peripheral benefit of economic growth, we need to understand that our wealth only grows at the speed that we can develop our creative capacities. And we must realise that we can no longer afford to empower the creativity of the few at the cost of the many. Our systems of government, business and education must make it their mission to support the creative fulfilment of every human being.

So… how to get to this future, from here?

Or are we just kidding ourselves?