Increasing Understanding of Technology and Communication

AI: We’re Children Playing with a Bomb (3 of 4)

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Bostrom grew up an only child in the coastal Swedish town of Helsingborg. Like many gifted children, he loathed school. His father worked for an investment bank, his mother for a Swedish corporation. He doesn’t remember any discussion of philosophy – or art or books – around the dinner table. Wondering how he found himself obsessed with these large questions, I ask if he was an anxious child: did he always have a powerful sense of mortality?

“I think I had it quite early on,” he says. “Not because I was on the brink of death or anything. But as a child I remember thinking a lot that my parents may be healthy now but they are not always going to be stronger or bigger than me.”

That thought kept him awake at nights?

“I don’t remember it as anxiety, more as a melancholy sense.”

And was that ongoing desire to live forever rooted there too?

“Not necessarily. I don’t think that there is any particularly different desire that I have in that regard to anyone else. I don’t want to come down with colon cancer – who does? If I was alive for 500 years who knows how I would feel? It is not so much fixated on immortality, just that premature death seems prima facie bad.”

A good deal of his book asks questions of how we might make superintelligence – whether it comes in 50 years or 500 years – “nice”, congruent with our humanity. Bostrom sees this as a technical challenge more than a political or philosophical one. It seems to me, though, that a good deal of our own ethical framework, our sense of goodness, is based on an experience and understanding of suffering, of our bodies. How could a non-cellular intelligence ever “comprehend” that?

The sense of intellectual urgency about these questions derives in part from what Bostrom calls an “epiphany experience”, which occurred when he was in his teens. He found himself in 1989 in a library and picked up at random an anthology of 19th-century German philosophy, containing works by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Intrigued, he read the book in a nearby forest, in a clearing that he used to visit to be alone and write poetry. Almost immediately he experienced a dramatic sense of the possibilities of learning. Was it like a conversion experience?

“More an awakening,” he says. “It felt like I had sleepwalked through my life to that point and now I was aware of some wider world that I hadn’t imagined.”

Following first the leads and notes in the philosophy book, Bostrom set about educating himself in fast forward. He read feverishly, and in spare moments he painted and wrote poetry, eventually taking degrees in philosophy and mathematical logic at Gothenburg university, before completing a PhD at the London School of Economics, and teaching at Yale.

Did he continue to paint and write?

“It seemed to me at some point that mathematical pursuit was more important,” he says. “I felt the world already contained a lot of paintings and I wasn’t convinced it needed a few more. Same could be said for poetry. But maybe it did need a few more ideas of how to navigate the future.”

One of the areas in which AI is making advances is in its ability to compose music and create art, and even to write. Does he imagine that sphere too will quickly be colonized by a superintelligence, or will it be a last redoubt of the human?

“I don’t buy the claim that the artificial composers currently can compete with the great composers. Maybe for short bursts but not over a whole symphony. And with art, though it can be replicated, the activity itself has value. You would still paint for the sake of painting.”

Authenticity, the man-made, becomes increasingly important?

“Yes and not just with art. If and when machines can do everything better than we can do, we would continue to do things because we enjoy doing them. If people play golf it is not because they need the ball to reside in successive holes efficiently, it is because they enjoy doing it. The more machines can do everything we can do the more attention we will give to these things that we value for their own sake.”

Early in his intellectual journey, Bostrom did a few stints as a philosophical standup comic in order to improve his communication skills. Talking to him, and reading his work, an edge of knowing absurdity at the sheer scale of the problems is never completely absent from his arguments. The axes of daunting-looking graphs in his papers will be calibrated on closer inspection in terms of “endurable”, “crushing” and “hellish”. In his introduction to Superintelligence, the observation “Many of the points made in this book are probably wrong” typically leads to a footnote that reads: “I don’t know which ones.” Does he sometimes feel he is morphing into Douglas Adams?

“Sometimes the work does seem strange,” he says. “Then from another point it seems strange that most of the world is completely oblivious to the most major things that are going to happen in the 21st century. Even people who talk about global warming never mention any threat posed by AI.”

Because it would dilute their message?

Read Article (Tim Adams | theguardian.com | 06/12/2016)

Especially during the digital era, our Superintelligent and media have been immersed in the evolution of technology and how, one day, it will surpass man’s abilities. But there is one process that continues today, they seem to ignore. Nearly every aspect of the human being is in constant evolution which naturally includes the unmatched human brain.

The power it possesses is still not understood as it accomplishes unbelievable tasks without the assistance of technology. In other words, technology is chasing a moving target that is actually developing that technology. Curious, huh?

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AI: We’re Children Playing with a Bomb (2 of 4)

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Bostrom sees those implications as potentially Darwinian. If we create a machine intelligence superior to our own, and then give it freedom to grow and learn through access to the internet, there is no reason to suggest that it will not evolve strategies to secure its dominance, just as in the biological world. He sometimes uses the example of humans and gorillas to describe the subsequent one-sided relationship and – as last month’s events in Cincinnati zoo highlighted – that is never going to end well. An inferior intelligence will always depend on a superior one for its survival.

There are times, as Bostrom unfolds various scenarios in Superintelligence, when it appears he has been reading too much of the science fiction he professes to dislike. One projection involves an AI system eventually building covert “nano-factories producing nerve gas or target-seeking mosquito-like robots [which] might then burgeon forth simultaneously from every square meter of the globe” in order to destroy meddling and irrelevant humanity. Another, perhaps more credible vision, sees the superintelligence “hijacking political processes, subtly manipulating financial markets, biasing information flows, or hacking human-made weapons systems” to bring about the extinction.

Does he think of himself as a prophet?

He smiles. “Not so much. It is not that I believe I know how it is going to happen and have to tell the world that information. It is more I feel quite ignorant and very confused about these things but by working for many years on probabilities you can get partial little insights here and there. And if you add those together with insights many other people might have, then maybe it will build up to some better understanding.”

Bostrom came to these questions by way of the transhumanist movement, which tends to view the digital age as one of unprecedented potential for optimizing our physical and mental capacities and transcending the limits of our mortality. Bostrom still sees those possibilities as the best case scenario in the super-intelligent future, in which we will harness technology to overcome disease and illness, feed the world, create a utopia of fulfilling creativity and perhaps eventually overcome death. He has been identified in the past as a member of Alcor, the cryogenic initiative that promises to freeze mortal remains in the hope that, one day, minds can be reinvigorated and uploaded in digital form to live in perpetuity. He is coy about this when I ask directly what he has planned.

“I have a policy of never commenting on my funeral arrangements,” he says.

But he thinks there is a value in cryogenic research?

“It seems a pretty rational thing for people to do if they can afford it,” he says. “When you think about what life in the quite near future could be like, trying to store the information in your brain seems like a conservative option as opposed to burning the brain down and throwing it away. Unless you are really confident that the information will never be useful…”

I wonder at what point his transhumanist optimism gave way to his more nightmarish visions of superintelligence. He suggests that he has not really shifted his position, but that he holds the two possibilities – the heaven and hell of our digital future – in uneasy opposition.

“I wrote a lot about human enhancement ethics in the mid-90s, when it was largely rejected by academics,” he says. “They were always like, ‘Why on earth would anyone want to cure ageing?’ They would talk about overpopulation and the boredom of living longer. There was no recognition that this is why we do any medical research: to extend life. Similarly, with cognitive enhancement – if you look at what I was writing then, it looks more on the optimistic side – but all along I was concerned with existential risks too.”

There seems an abiding unease that such enhancements – pills that might make you smarter, or slow down ageing – go against the natural order of things. Does he have a sense of that?

“I’m not sure that I would ever equate natural with good,” he says. “Cancer is natural, war is natural, parasites eating your insides are natural. What is natural is therefore never a very useful concept to figure out what we should do. Yes, there are ethical considerations but you have to judge them on a case-by-case basis. You must remember I am a transhumanist. I want my life extension pill now. And if there were a pill that could improve my cognition by 10%, I would be willing to pay a lot for that.”

Has he tried the ones that claim to enhance concentration?

“I have, but not very much. I drink coffee, I have nicotine chewing gum, but that is about it. But the only reason I don’t do more is that I am not yet convinced that anything else works.”

He is not afraid of trying. When working, he habitually sits in the corner of his office surrounded by a dozen lamps, apparently in thrall to the idea of illumination.

Read Article (Tim Adams | theguardian.com | 06/12/2016)

If I was financially able, I would be cryogenically preserved when my time came. It would be awesome to come back and check out a new world. But with some of the characters we have (and had) in the world today, that would need to be a decision made by a public vote. I must say that there are some people, unfortunately, that we don’t need to come back in any form.

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The Horrific Future When Robots Rule Earth

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Robin Hanson’s strange, very serious, book predicts what will happen in a Matrix-like world when computers have software emulations of human brains and our bodies are destroyed.

In the future, or so some people think, it will become possible to upload your consciousness into a computer. Software emulations of human brains – ems, for short – will then take over the economy and world. This sort of thing happens quite a lot in science fiction, but The Age of Em is a fanatically serious attempt, by an economist and scholar at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, to use economic and social science to forecast in fine detail how this world (if it is even possible) will actually work. The future it portrays is very strange and, in the end, quite horrific for everyone involved.

It is an eschatological vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Trillions of ems live in tall, liquid-cooled skyscrapers in extremely hot cities. Most of them are “very able focused workaholics”, who “respect and trust each other more” than we do.

Some ems will have robotic bodies; others will just live in virtual reality all the time. (Ems who are office workers won’t need bodies.) Some ems will run a thousand times faster than human brains, so having a subjective experience of much-expanded time. (Their bodies will need to be very small: “At this scale, an industry-era city population of a million kilo-ems could fit in an ordinary bottle.”)

Others might run very slowly, to save money. Ems will congregate in related “clans” and use “decision markets” to make important commercial and political choices. Ems will work nearly all the time but choose to remember an existence that is nearly all leisure. Some ems will be “open-source lovers”; all will be markedly more religious and also swear more often. The em economy will double every month, and competition will drive nearly all wages down to subsistence levels. Surveillance will be total. Fun, huh?

This hellish cyberworld is quite cool to think about in a dystopian Matrixy way, although the book is much drier than fiction. Hanson says it reads more like an encyclopedia. But if it’s an encyclopedia, what are its sources? The physicist Niels Bohr was quoting an earlier Danish wit when he said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” But Hanson’s book is, in part, a defense of prediction.

“Today,” he complains, “we take far more effort to study the past than the future, even though we can’t change the past.” Yes, you might respond: that is because we literally cannot “study” the future – because either it doesn’t exist or (in the block-universe model of time) it does exist but is completely inaccessible to us. Given that, the book’s confidence in its own brilliantly weird extrapolations is both impressive and quite peculiar.

Hanson describes his approach as that of “using basic social theory, in addition to common sense and trend projection, to forecast future societies”. The casual use of “common sense” there should, as always, ring alarm bells. And a lot of the book’s sense is arguably quite uncommon. The governing tone is strikingly misanthropic, despairing of current humans’ “maladaptation” to the environment (the low birth rate in rich countries, and our excessive consumption of TV and even music apparently prove this), and there is an un-argued assumption throughout that social patterns and institutions are more likely to revert to pre-industrial norms in the future.

The major difficulty in the analysis, though, lies with Hanson’s vision of how ems will think of copies of themselves. If an em decides to terminate itself and have a saved copy of an earlier brain-state reawakened, is that archived version still the same person? Will a briefly lived “spur” copy of an em be happy to be terminated after it finishes the task it was created for? Hanson assumes there is no big problem about the continuity of identity among such copies, and therefore erects a large edifice of sociological speculation on how the liberal use of em copies and backups will change attitudes to sex, law, death and pretty much everything else.

But there is plausibly a show-stopping problem here. If someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. The robot running an exact copy of my consciousness won’t actually be “me”. (Such issues are richly analyzed in the philosophical literature stemming from Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about teleportation and the like in the 1980s.)

So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen. But then, the rather underwhelming upshot of this project is that fast-living and super-clever ems will probably crack the problem of proper AI – actual intelligent machines – within a year or so of ordinary human time. And then the age of em will be over and the Singularity will be upon us, and what comes next is anyone’s guess.

What about, you know, us? Early on, Hanson cheerfully says: “This book mostly ignores humans.” If meat people survive in the em era, he says, they will probably live far from the cities on low pensions. Given that this future is so gloomy for just about everyone, one does end up wondering why Hanson wants to wake up in it – he reveals in the book that he has arranged to be cryogenically frozen on his death. I suppose it is at least possible that, one day, he could open his eyes and have the last laugh, as he surveys the appalling future he foresaw so long ago.

Read Article (Steven Poole | theguardian.com | 06/15/2016)

There seems to be fewer science fiction books based on current technological and scientific real-world discoveries. Something that is at least, possible.

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Microsoft Moves into the Legal Cannabis Business

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America’s burgeoning weed industry just seems to be climbing higher. Tech giant Microsoft announced Thursday it is partnering with a cannabis industry-focused software company called Kind Financial. The company provides “seed to sale” services for cannabis growers, allowing them to track inventory, navigate laws and handle transactions all through Kind’s software systems. The partnership marks the first major tech company to attach its name to the burgeoning industry of legal marijuana.

While most big tech companies have been shy to get involved, tech start-ups have been flocking to the up-and-coming pot trade, which is fully legal for both recreational and medical purposes in five states. The marijuana industry’s specific needs for data tracking to optimize plant growth and other logistics, as well as its booming market potential, make it well-suited for tech partnerships. “Nobody has really come out of the closet, if you will,” said Matthew A. Karnes, the founder of marijuana data company Green Wave Advisors, to The New York Times. “It’s very telling that a company of this caliber is taking the risk of coming out and engaging with a company that is focused on the cannabis business.”

This hesitancy comes from the still murky legal status of marijuana in most of the country. Marijuana is still illegal nationwide, and the risk of crackdowns where federal and state laws contradict have discouraged many banks from working with marijuana businesses. There are also risks in taking a weed business across state lines where it could have a different legal standing. And there’s always the danger that a change in government leadership, say with a changing presidential administration, could result in a backtracking of relaxed marijuana laws.

Then there is the potentially negative association. “[My company] has stayed away from investing in the cannabis industry because it’s like investing in the porn industry,” said Zach Bogue, a venture capital investor. “I’m sure there's a lot of money to be made, but it’s just not something we want to invest in.”

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), sees marijuana software and Microsoft as a natural pairing. “If you are trying to go big macro strategy at a company like Microsoft, and you want a super diverse portfolio, and you’re located largely in a place where you can visibly see the marijuana commerce happening, and of course maybe your employees and others are engaged in that commerce, why wouldn’t the company invest in it?” he said.

He adds that he believes that Microsoft’s association with legal marijuana will ultimately be helpful in the legalization effort. (Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., is in a state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use.) The legitimacy it lends will make it easier for marijuana producers to do business, citing growers who see their ad dollars refused by corporations that don’t want to be associated with the substance. “Having a brand name like Microsoft will definitely catch people’s attentions,” he said.

He also thinks the partnership could affect legislation. “Microsoft has a leviathan [lobbying] effort up here in Washington [D.C.],” he said. “One of the things that has been really interesting to see is how the focus is becoming not so much about legalization per say, that’s almost become a bugaboo word up on the Hill, but just focusing in on these commerce reforms, for example to allow banks to handle this trade ... they lobby hard for that stuff on the Hill right now and to have a Microsoft weigh in saying, we want to be part of that commerce, can only buoy those efforts.”

St. Pierre notes that Kind Financial, which is never directly involved in growing, testing, or selling marijuana, is typical for the kind of companies cropping up around lobbying efforts and gaining financial traction. These ancillary companies that provide services around the actual moving of product are legally much easier to handle.

“The fact that one is engaged in their minds in quite legal commerce, one where lawyers are saying, sure you can set up software to track it, you can set up a web page that shows pretty pictures of marijuana and rate it, or get coupon discounts, etc.,” he said. “Compared to the other side of the issue, where you’re growing it, transporting it, you’re selling it, and you’re actually touching it, the lawyering they get is ... more schizophrenic.” These actual producers, he adds, are the most legally vulnerable.

Still, St. Pierre is thrilled at the partnership. “Ten years ago, 20 years ago, if you were saying, I have a software and I’m hoping to track marijuana sale, you and I would be in a RICO conspiracy. So that speaks to how much has changed, and how today what’s heralded in a newswire as a big partnership, years ago would have put you in federal prison,” he said.

Read Article (Karen Turner | washingtonpost.com | 06/16/2016)

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Why Smart Homes Are Still a Dumb Idea

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In the wake of the resignation of Tony Faddell, the founder of smart thermostat maker Nest, the future is looking cloudy not only for the smart thermostat maker, but the broader smart home business as well.

Nest, after all, was supposed to be the trailblazer that led us to the smart home revolution. When Google put down $3.2 billion to buy it in 2014, it appeared to make sense -- Google was already running much of our online lives, and this would give the company a way to run our offline lives as well. (Or, I suppose more accurately, make our offline lives become part of our online lives.) The charismatic Fadell seemed to be the right pioneer, given his product experience at Apple, which he could apply to Google’s more open computing vision.

But Nest proved to be a less-than-ideal poster child.

It was slow to put out products. When it did, it wasn’t always a success. The company’s Nest Protect smoke alarm hit early problems that required the company to disable its most innovative feature -- the ability to wave your hand under the detector to stop the alarm. (It was a particularly attractive feature for bad or at least smoke-heavy cooks.)

The company also fielded very public complaints about faulty software that, as the New York Times reported, literally left people in the cold. Then, earlier this year, Nest announced that it would stop supporting the Revolv, a smart home hub that it acquired along with a smart appliance firm of the same name in 2014.

All of these developments served, in some capacity, to highlight problems consumers are having with the smart home market. It sounds pretty great to have thermostats, light bulbs, ovens and security systems that anticipate our every move. The reality has been something less wonderful -- a fractured market of occasionally buggy appliances that work with some, but not all, of the systems out there.

And, perhaps most tellingly, despite the public problems Nest was facing, no single company has positioned itself as an alternative.

So beyond the early adopters, consumers right now are having some trouble getting aboard the smart home express. For people who don’t have the time to sort out whether their light bulb will talk to their smart speaker -- and to come up with passwords for all those accounts -- the smart home still seems to be part of a fictional "Jetsons"-esque future.

A survey from the consulting firm Accenture found early this year that some people had actually abandoned their smart home appliances. Many said they were worried about what implications having smart devices held for their privacy and security. They added they were particularly worried about getting hacked -- an understandable concern if you’re trusting, say, a smart security camera with your safety.

Others had a much more prosaic, but no less troubling concern: they found the set-up process too complicated. For most people, having to find out if your lightbulb will work when you hit your digital switch is too much of a hassle -- particularly when you have a reliable low-tech alternative. Add in the worry that any device you bought could become a paperweight two years later because the company’s no longer supporting it? That makes it seem hardly worth it to invest in the system at all.

The smart home market is certainly still promising -- but that, by definition, means it’s an area with its fullest potential ahead of it. Amazon’s Echo, the forthcoming Google Home, and the rumored “Siri-in-a-box” are all appealing because of what they could do down the line -- act as the personal concierge that can follow you from your home to your car to your workplace.

But right now, these home hubs feel like a novelty rather than an essential part of our lives. And without firms such as Nest pushing those developments, hubs lose a great deal of appeal. Even the greatest hub needs spokes.

That’s particularly true if the intelligent voice assistants that power those hubs make their way into our smartphones. If Siri-in-a-box can do everything Siri-in-my-smartphone can do, there’s no real reason to buy it. Sure, maybe Google Home can buy me movie tickets, but I’m not going to buy a separate appliance if my smartphone -- which is also sitting on my kitchen counter -- can do the same. The added appeal of the home hub, at least for me, is as a way to set up and control my appliances and not have to clutter my phone up with an app for every single appliance.

Nest and Google had a shared vision of making not just an innovative product, but an innovative network that could support a number of appliances to make our lives better. That’s an appealing vision. But, right now, it’s one in need of a new banner carrier.

Read Article (Hayley Tsukayama | domain | 06/06/2016)

Unfortunately, visions of the Smart Home that media has shown us seems to be great in theory but not so much in reality. At least not for the near future.

But that does not mean society shouldn’t prepare for it. Less than half our population is tech savvy enough to benefit from such a home. But that time is coming and we should help one-another gain the skills to benefit from new technology. Please support our efforts to do just that.

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