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Superintelligence

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, StrategiesSuperintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

According to Bostrom the "essential task of our age" is preparing for the possibility of superintelligence (through AI or something similar) and the potential risks involved. He writes that "our principle moral priority" is "the reduction of existential risk and the attainment of a civilizational trajectory that leads to a compassionate and jubilant use of humanity's cosmic endowment."

So when America spends decades ignoring the clear rational and moral imperative of global climate change, much less when it elects Donald Trump, it's difficult to imagine that we will develop the skills to prepare for this possibility.

I actually don't believe that strong AI (John Searle's phrase) is ontologically possible. Reading Searle's argument in the 1990's convinced me of that. Bostrom never addresses Searle's arguments, but he clearly believes it is not only possible but likely within this century.

After grasping the main points of the book in the opening chapters, I then dragged while reading half of it as he imagines all sorts of various scenarios. Frankly I was bored and considered putting the book down, but in the second half the interest increases as he ethical issues, how to teach a superintelligence morality, and what criteria should be used in determining our longterm values. I still skimmed heartily.

Frankly, this is among the strangest books I've ever read, but there are nuggets of interests and the overarching thesis is provocative. Bostrom thinks all the best people should begin working on this problem and not waste their time on less important issues. Well, I don't plan to do that.

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The Damn E-mails

Like many (and I hope most people) I've been puzzled all along as to what the supposed Clinton e-mail scandal was supposed to be about other than a bad information technology decision and the type of mess that almost any professional can get into.  Haven't all of us had e-mails that should have gone one place go another place or that should have been saved somehow disappear?  And we aren't working with all the record-keeping rules of the federal bureaucracy.  

So, I was glad to see this column from the Washington Post summarizing the new FBI report (which I haven't read).  Here is the essential, summary paragraph:

One doesn’t come away from this memo feeling that one has spotted any effort on the part of Clinton to deceive. She sought convenience and delegated to others the project of producing an efficient and easily usable communications system. Her mistake was in failing to recognize that her communications also needed to fulfill other functions. Clinton forgot that she needed to ask for sound records management.

And, then, this conclusion:

But what does this memo mean for voting Americans? I think it’s basically this: If you’re trying to weigh Donald Trump’s and Clinton’s characters against one another, look elsewhere than this email scandal. No deep Clinton character flaws are in evidence here. This is a story about a moment when Clinton failed to recognize that professional expertise was necessary, in a rapidly evolving area where many are struggling.

Now, can we please finally take Bernie Sanders' advice and move on from the damn e-mails to actual issues?


Infopolitics and Digital Persons

A startling essay at the NYTimes writes about how we have increasingly become digital persons and that we don't understand this yet.  It is one reason we don't really know how to respond to reports of NSA data collection, etc.  We require a new infopolitics that is based upon this reality that we are digital persons.  An excerpt: 

We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely about us. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are.

We understandably do not want to see ourselves as bits and bytes. But unless we begin conceptualizing ourselves in this way, we leave it to others to do it for us. 


My Thirties: Cell Phone

In 2004, when I was Thirty, I wrote about why I would never have a cell phone.  You can read the entire blogpost here.  An excerpt:

A cell phone? Sure, convenient now and then. But I would venture to say, having observed its use by almost everyone around me now for a while, more a nuisance and a bother. Why do I want to detract from my well-being and that of my neighbors?

Go ahead, call me a crank.

I didn't think I needed one.  I wrote:

I'm perfectly reachable in reasonable time via phones at home and work, e-mail at home and work, IM, a blog, and good old letters.

How quaint.

That post was in response to a Robert Samuelson column in Newsweek in which is presciently wrote: 

Cell phones -- and, indeed, all wireless devices -- constitute another chapter in the ongoing breakdown between work and everything else. They pretend to increase your freedom while actually stealing it. People are supposed to be always capable of participating in the next meeting, responding to their e-mails, or retrieving factoids from the Internet. People so devoted to staying interconnected are kept in a perpetual state of anxiety, because they may have missed some significant memo, rendezvous, bit of news or gossip. They may be more plugged in and less thoughtful.

Yet, when I went to CoH-OKC because they did not have an office, they gave me a cell phone.  Argh.

Yeah, I did succumb to making calls and texting and even ruining the wonderfully long silent drives I used to take by talking.

I had little use for cell phones before Michael got a smart phone, and we used it for GPS and other purposes when traveling to California in 2008.

I didn't get my own smart phone till 2010 (I've still got that one).

After nine years of use, I find them convient, but I still despise them.  Keep calling me a crank.


The New Digital Age: Conclusion

The final two paragraphs merit being quoted in full:

The virtual and physical civilizations will affect and shape each other; the balance they strike will come to define our world.  In our view, the multidimensional result, though not perfect, will be more egalitarian, more transparent and more interesting than we can even imagine.  As in a social contract, users will voluntarily relinquish things they value in the physical world--privacy, security, personal data--in order to gain the benefits that come with being connected to the virtual world.  In turn, should they feel that these benefits are being withheld, they'll use the tools at their disposal to demand accountability and drive change in the physical world.

The case for optimism lies not in sci-fi gadgets or holograms but in the check that technology and connectivity bring against the abuses, suffering and destruction in our world.  When exposure meets opportunity, the possibilities are endless.  The best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.  When given the access, the people will do the rest.  They already know what they need and what they want to build, and they'll find ways to innovate with even the meagerest set of tools.  Anyone passionate about economic prosperity, human rights, social justice, education or self-determination should consider how connectivity can help us reach these goals and even move beyond them.  We cannot eliminate inequality or abuse of power, but through technological inclusion we can help transfer power into the hands of individual people and trust that they will take it from there.  It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.

That next to the last sentence seems very Congregationalist!


The New Digital Age: The Future of Reconstruction

They are most hopeful of the role that new digital technology will play in reconstructing a country after war or a natural disaster.  If the rest of the book depressed you, this chapter is encouraging.  

After a disaster, there will be a "mobile-first mentality."  Traditionally telecommunications came late in the process, now getting networks functioning will be primary, even before search and rescue, as the mobile technology will facilitate that task.  This new mentality has already been developing in places such as Haiti.

This chapter reads as a great analysis of what has worked and not worked in recent major disasters.

"Thanks to connectivity, exiles will be far less estranged from the population than their predecessors."  Exiles can develop support structures for their home country, maybe even governments-in-exile that can step in after a dictator is removed.  There could even be on-line elected parliaments.

Corruption after a disaster could be lessened as inventories and donations could be more easily tracked with mobile technology.  Even arms could have implanted tracking devices, so that weapons didn't get beyond the intended recipients.

In the reconstruction of Rwanda, it was learned that one of the best things to do when disarming combatants was to give them a mobile phone, which gave them connections, opportunities, and status.  It also meant they could be tracked and could have access to money and be paid, rather than being given one lump sum.

Capturing images of violence will lead to perpetrators being caught and convicted, but it could also mean that healing is more difficult.  They write that after any conflict, healing requires "a certain collective memory loss.  With much more evidence, there will be much more to forgive."


The New Digital Age: The Future of Conflict

In the future, states will more easily be able to target minorities and deny them access to the digital age.  They label this "virtual genocide."

Wars will now have a marketing component, as each side attempts to persuade the international community.  The marketing will also likely begin before the war even starts.

Crowds may push for military involvement based upon videos and photos, this without having the detailed, classified information that leaders have.  Something like America's involvement in Somalia could result.

Data permanence will affect future conflicts, as perpetrator's records will not be wiped out and war criminals could be brought to justice or tried in the court of public opinion.  They believe, hopefully, "The collective power of the online world will serve as a tremendous deterrent to potential perpetrators of brutality, corrupt practices and even crimes against humanity."

Robots will forever alter how we fight wars.

They write that the current budget and contract procedures of the American military are preventing innovation and adequate adaptation to contemporary technology.  America's technical superiority could be lost if the political process is not reformed.

"With more combat options that do not inflame public opinion [drones, etc.], the government can pursue its security objectives without having to consider declaring war or committing troops, decreasing the possibility of outright war."


The New Digital Age: The Future of Terrorism

They predict the "proliferation of sophisticated homemade explosive devices."  This was written before Boston, of course.  They predict that bombing-making will not be something you need an organization or only an expert for.  I wonder if the media and investigators have read this, as it seems that so many people are puzzled by the idea that the Tsarnaev brothers could have manufactured their own bomb.

Their big worry though is "everyman drones."  Even remote-control toys can become drones.  They imagine a number of frightening scenarios, including those that combine physical drones and cyberattacks to bring down response systems.  They believe scenarios like those they describe are inevitable.

"There will be fewer terrorist masterminds altogether.  But those that do exist will be even more dangerous."  Traditional solutions will be increasingly ineffective at responding to terror and more likely to generate more terrorists (as we've already seen in the last 20 years).

Intelligence communities will need to find ways to reach out to and recruit hackers, a group notoriously non-conformist.  They have some hope that this will be difficult for rogue states and terrorist groups.

An irony of Bin Laden's capture is that it was "his lack of Internet access in a large urban home that helped identify him."  Though being on-line would have made him even more easily discoverable.

"The silver lining of cyber terrorism is that, in almost every way, its practitioners will have less room for error. . . .  It takes only one mistake or weak link to compromise an entire network."

They imagine that in the future, governments will not allow, or at least not like, for people to be hidden, and that unconnected people will be on a list that will receive greater scrutiny at airports, etc., because the government will worry what people have to hide.  

So, if you are frightened by this book, and think you should stay or get off-line.  Well, that might not work.

"The only remedies for potential digital tyranny are to strengthen legal institutions and to encourage civil society to remain active and wise to potential abuses of this power."

Technological engagement should lead to more open societies, and be a way of dissuading people from becoming radicalized.  This is their hope for the 52% of world population which is under 30, a vast majority of whom are "socioeconomically at risk."  General Stanley McChrystal said, "What defeats terrorism is really two things.  It's rule of law and then it's opportunity for people."