A couple of book reviews

This is one of two links to reviews of what I consider to be critically important books. This book is about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it will rival runaway climate change and all out nuclear war as agents for the demise of the human species. The second book shows a pathway to a new, sane and much safer world.

Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark review – we are ignoring the AI apocalypse

Yuval Noah Harari responds to an account of the artificial intelligence era and argues we are profoundly ill-prepared to deal with future technology:
Artificial intelligence will probably be the most important agent of change in the 21st century. It will transform our economy, our culture, our politics and even our own bodies and minds in ways most people can hardly imagine. If you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably wrong; but if you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it does not sound like science fiction, it is certainly wrong.
Technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. In the 21st century, AI will open up an even wider spectrum of possibilities. Deciding which of these to realise may well be the most important choice humankind will have to make in the coming decades.

This choice is not a matter of engineering or science. It is a matter of politics. Hence it is not something we can leave to Silicon Valley– it should be among the most important items on our political agenda. Unfortunately, AI has so far hardly registered on our political radar. It has not been a major subject in any election campaign, and most parties, politicians and voters seem to have no opinion about it. This is largely because most people have only a very dim and limited understanding of machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. (Most generally held ideas about AI come from SF movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix.) Without a better understanding of the field, we cannot comprehend the dilemmas we are facing: when science becomes politics, scientific ignorance becomes a recipe for political disaster.

Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 tries to rectify the situation. Written in an accessible and engaging style, and aimed at the general public, the book offers a political and philosophical map of the promises and perils of the AI revolution. Instead of pushing any one agenda or prediction, Tegmark seeks to cover as much ground as possible, reviewing a wide variety of scenarios concerning the impact of AI on the job market, warfare and political  systems.
Life 3.0 does a good job of clarifying basic terms and key debates, and in dispelling common myths. While science fiction has caused many people to worry about evil robots, for instance, Tegmark rightly emphasises that the real problem is with the unforeseen consequences of developing highly competent AI. Artificial intelligence need not be evil and need not be encased in a robotic frame in order to wreak havoc. In Tegmark’s words, “the real risk with artificial general intelligence isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”

As for the obsession with robots, we should remind ourselves that a surveillance system – one that constantly tracks people and uses Big Data algorithms to analyse their behaviour and personality – can destroy our privacy, our individuality and our democratic institutions without any need for Terminator-style killer machines.
Naturally enough Tegmark’s map is not complete, and in particular it does not give enough attention to the confluence of AI with biotechnology. The 21st century will be shaped not by infotech alone, but rather by the merger of infotech with biotech. AI will be of crucial importance precisely because it will give us the computing power necessary to hack the human organism. Long before the appearance of superintelligent computers, our society will be completely transformed by rather crude and dumb AI that is nevertheless good enough to hack humans, predict their feelings, make choices on their behalf, and manipulate their desires.
Once an algorithm knows you better than you know yourself, institutions such as democratic elections and free markets become obsolete, and authority shifts from humans to algorithms. Instead of fearing assassin robots that try to terminate us, we should be concerned about hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons better than our mother, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something. It might be apocalypse by shopping.

Yet the real problem of Tegmark’s book is that it soon bumps up against the limits of present-day political debates. The AI revolution turns many philosophical problems into practical political questions and forces us to engage in “philosophy with a deadline” (as the philosopher Nick Bostrom called it). Philosophers have been arguing about consciousness and free will for thousands of years, without reaching a consensus. This mattered little in the age of Plato or Descartes, because in those days the only place you could create superintelligences was in your imagination. Yet in the 21st century, these debates are shifting from philosophy faculties to departments of engineering and computer science. And whereas philosophers are patient people, engineers are impatient, and hedge fund investors are more restless still. When Tesla engineers come to design a self-driving car, they cannot wait while philosophers argue about its ethics.
Consequently Tegmark soon leaves behind familiar debates about the job market, privacy and weapons of mass destruction, and ventures into realms that hitherto were associated with philosophy, theology and mythology rather than politics. This can hardly be avoided. For the creation of superintelligent AI is an event on a global or even cosmic rather than a national level. For 4bn years life on Earth evolved according to the laws of natural selection and organic chemistry. Now science is about to usher in the era of non-organic life evolving by intelligent design, and such life may well eventually leave Earth to spread throughout the galaxy. The choices we make today may have a profound impact on the trajectory of life for countless millennia and far beyond our own planet.

Though Tegmark is probably correct in taking things to this cosmic level, I fear that many, if not most, of his prospective readers will not follow him there. Our political systems, and indeed our individual minds, are just not built to think on such a scale. Current political mechanisms barely manage to make decisions on the scale of decades – how can they make decisions on the scale of millennia? Who has time to worry about AI taking over the planet when you have to deal with Donald Trump and Brexit?
In the case of the AI revolution, as so often before in human history, we will probably make the most profound decisions on the basis of myopic short-term considerations. The future of life on Earth will be decided by small-time politicians spreading fears about terrorist threats, by shareholders worried about quarterly revenues and by marketing experts trying to maximise customer experience.

• Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, Homo Deus, is published by Vintage.


Why Canada should ignore Donald Trump the USA and everyone else too.

I expect that my grand children, now in their late teens and twenties, will witness the full impact of the world-wide mass migrations to take place as one of the results of climate change. These migrations will take the form of all peoples moving towards the Earth’s north and south poles as the planet inexorably moves towards a state that will not support human life. In the case of the Americas this means Patagonia which is small and already partially bought up, or northern Canada. There are about half a billion people living between the equator and the Canada/US border.

Unfortunately this is not alarmist drivel it is the only scenario that makes sense, given the obvious reality of the human condition over the balance of the 21st century and beyond. This dystopian reality can easily be itemized into factors which are not in dispute by the worldwide body of serious scientists. Over all these items hangs the spectre of increasing population expected to top out at over 10 billion, a 500% increase since I was born.


Fresh water for drinking, crop irrigation and hygene:

Salinization of shallow aquifers such as Florida and the Pacific islands.

Depletion of non-replenishable  aquifers such as the deep Ogalalla of the US Great Plains

Loss of glaciers such as those of the Himalayas that give rise to five major rivers which in turn provide water for more than 1.4 billion people.

Multi-year drought in places such as Australia, the African Sahel and California.

Contamination by agricultural and industrial waste.


Food production 

Lack of irrigation water as mentioned above.

Depletion of soil by erosion.

Degradation of soils by pesticides, chemical fertilizers, over-use and over-tilling.

Loss of fisheries by over-fishing, reduction of ocean alkalinity (aka acidification), anoxia from agricultural run-off and increasing ocean temperature.


Intolerable atmospheric conditions 

Heat waves, sandstorms, increase of particulates, decrease of oxygen content and general warming of the atmosphere will bring increasing difficulties to those who are already suffering from chronic disease, particularly of the lungs. At some point, every individual will face a decision to attempt to migrate to a more favourable climate or to stay put and die.


Communicable Disease

During and after the WW1, 16 million people died from the “Spanish” strain of influenza. Much of the magnitude of this pandemic has been attributed to poor hygiene in the trenches during the last weeks or months of the war plus the fact that those still alive returned home and took the virus with them. Many parts of the world still harbour virulent communicable disease, some of which can be passed on through the air (influenza and tuberculosis), through the water (cholera and dysentery), bodily fluids (HIV/aids, hepatitis and STD’s) through contaminated food and even by close contact with other animal species ( the zoonotic forms of influenza, tetanus, bubonic plague – yes it still lingers in some wild animal populations).

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the danger of  disease to tens of millions of humans crowding together, having left behind medical services and already struggling with fatigue, injuries and immune system compromise.


Under  such conditions, the existence of political boundaries, trade agreements, political and economic systems and even nations will become meaningless. Armed conflict will erupt but not under the auspices of the UN, NATO or any other such political entity, it will just erupt in response to whatever gets in the way of the migrating and often armed humans who are displaced. Alliances, governments, the rule of law and civil society (which has never been civil anyway) will unravel in favour of doing whatever it takes to stay alive.

At this point in time, all humans would do well to put their efforts into mitigating the factors and conditions which are leading us all inexorably towards the plight outlined above and only if and when that can be accomplished do we need to worry about treaties, nationalism, commerce, the sacred economy and other niceties of past centuries. Failing to accomplish such all-encompassing change will render all human political constructs useless.

What’s Blocking Sustainability? Why is the world sleepwalking into global ecological crisis?

A lecture by William Rees.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University.
7th March, 2012. Newcastle Upon Tyne.

This lecture by Dr Rees from almost 4 years ago is a very complete summary of what I have learned over my 4 or 5 years of reading, listening, viewing and research (I wish I had found it sooner!!). What I was able to add to my knowledge was a more complete understanding of the operation of the physical, human brain.


William Rees is a Professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His teaching and research emphasize the public policy and planning implications of global environmental trends and the necessary ecological conditions for sustaining socioeconomic activity. Much of his work is in the realm of ecological economics and human ecology. He is best known in this field for his invention of ‘ecological footprint analysis’, a quantitative tool that estimates humanity’s ecological impact on the ecosphere in terms of appropriated ecosystem (land and water) area. Dr Rees’ book on this method, Our Ecological Footprint (1996, co-authored with then PhD student Mathis Wackernagel) is now available in English, Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latvian and Spanish. He is presently supervising several eco-footprint projects ranging from the sustainability implications of globalization to getting serious about urban sustainability.

Prof Rees is also a founding member and recent past-President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; a co-investigator in the ‘Global Integrity Project,’ aimed at defining the ecological and political requirements for biodiversity preservation; a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and a Founding Fellow of the One Earth Initiative. Drawing parts of his answer from various disciplines, Prof Rees’ current book project asks: “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable?” A dynamic speaker, Prof Rees has been invited to lecture on areas of his expertise across Canada and the US, as well as in Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the UK. In 1997, UBC awarded William Rees a Senior Killam Research Prize in acknowledgment of his research achievements and in 2000 The Vancouver Sun recognized him as one of British Columbia’s top “public intellectuals.” In 2006 Prof Rees was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and in 2007 he was awarded a prestigious 3-year Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellowship.

Click here to watch the lecture.

A New Look for a Dawning New Age?

So, we have a new government and I have a new header image for my blog, but does that herald a new age?

There appears to be differences of opinion about astrological ages. Besides, the Age of Aquarius with its “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding” hasn’t quite met expectations from my perspective. Mind you, I was about a decade too old to really BE in the late ’60’s and 70’s which made me untrustworthy (remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) and also un-hip. However, some astrological gurus say we are actually still in the Age of Pisces which would be awkward as we humans are in the process of causing massive reduction and even extinction of many or most fish species, harmony and sympathy notwithstanding.

Rather than “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding”, we have just gone through perhaps the most divisive and politically acrimonious decade in Canadian history under the boot-heel of Stephen Harper and his secretive, anti-science, pro-fossil fuel, anti-cooperation government. This unhappy decade was topped off with a 78 day distasteful election campaign and the ouster of the tyrant.

During this campaign, an obvious attempt to disenfranchise eligible Canadian voters who would be unlikely to vote for the so-called “Harper Government” apparently backfired by bringing First Nations People to the polls in unprecedented numbers. I think this is a very positive note for the people who cared for what we now call Canada for thousands of years before they were unfortunate enough to be discovered by our ancestors from Europe. I can understand First Nations Peoples’ resistance to taking part in a system which they don’t see as relevant to them, I go through the same discussion with myself every election.

Even the attempt to prevent a new Canadian from becoming eligible to vote because of her wish to do what she feels is her religious duty failed. It is ironic that this “incident” occurred during a ceremonial procedure supposedly welcoming this new Canadian to her chosen new home and that it was the courts, always irksome to the former Prime Minister, that enabled her to vote.

Has a New Age commenced for Canada and Canadians? Time will tell. Traditionally, the Liberal Party is a party of the corporate elite and the new Prime Minister will have a tough time shedding the baggage of that past and the perceived entitlement of campaign funders but I hope he is genuine and will keep the promises made during the campaign. If he does, I am hoping that will set a precedent for the future of Canadian politics.

If none of this pans out and we continue along the well trodden but increasingly dangerous path of business-as-usual, enjoy the new header image. As with anything regarding the future it is a work-in-progress but the less complex and less stressful life it depicts is what I am wishing for my grandchildren and beyond – quality of life ahead of standard of living.

It Looks As If My Hopes For A Global Financial Crash Are In Vain

It’s late Monday morning on the west coast (Canada) and markets are recovering after huge, but apparently unsustainable “losses” at opening this morning. Damn, it looked as if there might actually be something positive for me in tonight’s news. I’ll just have to settle for the usual; Canada – lawmakers breaking the law and lying about it under oath, and America – views on the economy by President-In-Waiting Trump . . . another evening of Cookie Jam on Facebook I guess.

Economic Growth, as measured by GDP simply means the amount of money changing hands, normally going from the poor to the rich. Earthquakes, war, highway carnage, increasing death rates from lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardio-vascular disease all cause GDP to rise. To be balanced, so does actual production. Usually I prefer to be un-balanced.

For an economy to grow, something has to shrink and, with the proliferation of free-trade capitalism, the main loser is our home planet. Earth is the only home humans have or ever will have unless you think that a one-way ticket to Mars to live out your life in small pod, recycling your bodily wastes to stay alive qualifies as an alternate home.

Forests turning to desert, water supplies drying up or turning toxic, temperatures and sea levels rising, accelerating species extinction, massive migration of humanity in search of food and water; these and other less obvious tears in the interconnected fabric of life on Earth are directly attributable to growth driven economics. If it doesn’t stop, humans would be just one more species on the list of extinctions if there were anyone left to keep score.

One more thing about the present economic system, it cannot be simply fine tuned to bring growth down to zero and then continue to be used. This has to do with how the growth occurs through the creation of debt and how the debt is eliminated through the creation of money. In actual fact, the debt will never be paid off and was never intended to be, except for that portion which is owed by the ordinary citizens of the countries involved. The system must be completely broken and a new system which cares about people and the Earth must replace it.

There are alternatives.

Zero Growth economics, Steady State economics, Resource Based economics, barter, local currency, local economies, time banking, gifting, re-establishing the Commons, co-operatives, communes, reciprocity and any activity which is conducted co-operatively instead of competitively would all help to build a sufficient, sustainable and resilient society, something that we do not currently have.

Civilization has been an enormously disruptive and destructive force and cannot continue as is. In the past and at present, human efforts have been directed towards propping up this unsustainable endeavor by dividing life into 2 catogories; humans and everything else.

So far, the Human has mustered enough ingenuity to supress all other life-forms and still continue to proliferate. Civilization has covered such a short span of time, less than 500 years of the 500,000 years of modern human life, the 15,000,000 years of the family Hominidae, and the 2,100,000,000 years of life-on-Earth that a future alien Anthropologist (oxymoron intended) would have trouble believing that one species could have caused a major die-off which included itself in such short order.

So I’m hoping we don’t manage to do it. However, it is obvious that we will not make any of the right decisions to set ourselves on a better course so we will need outside help. Maybe the irony will be that the complex systems (such as perpetual-growth economics) we have devised but are unable to control will turn on us and bring the whole quaking edifice down around us.

I was hoping that would happen today.

What Might Happen Next and Why it has Scientists So Frightened

This is one section from an article in Rolling Stone titled

“The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here”

Thanks to the pressure we’re putting on the planet’s ecosystem — warming, acidification and good old-fashioned pollution — the oceans are set up for several decades of rapid change. Here’s what could happen next.

The combination of excessive nutrients from agricultural runoff, abnormal wind patterns and the warming oceans is already creating seasonal dead zones in coastal regions when algae blooms suck up most of the available oxygen. The appearance of low-oxygen regions has doubled in frequency every 10 years since 1960 and should continue to grow over the coming decades at an even greater rate.

So far, dead zones have remained mostly close to the coasts, but in the 21st century, deep-ocean dead zones could become common. These low-oxygen regions could gradually expand in size — potentially thousands of miles across — which would force fish, whales, pretty much everything upward. If this were to occur, large sections of the temperate deep oceans would suffer should the oxygen-free layer grow so pronounced that it stratifies, pushing surface ocean warming into overdrive and hindering upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich deeper water.

Enhanced evaporation from the warmer oceans will create heavier downpours, perhaps destabilizing the root systems of forests, and accelerated runoff will pour more excess nutrients into coastal areas, further enhancing dead zones. In the past year, downpours have broken records in Long Island, Phoenix, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston and Pensacola, Florida.

Evidence for the above scenario comes in large part from our best understanding of what happened 250 million years ago, during the “Great Dying,” when more than 90 percent of all oceanic species perished after a pulse of carbon dioxide and methane from land-based sources began a period of profound climate change. The conditions that triggered “Great Dying” took hundreds of thousands of years to develop. But humans have been emitting carbon dioxide at a much quicker rate, so the current mass extinction only took 100 years or so to kick-start.

With all these stressors working against it, a hypoxic feedback loop could wind up destroying some of the oceans’ most species-rich ecosystems within our lifetime. A recent study by Sarah Moffitt of the University of California-Davis said it could take the ocean thousands of years to recover. “Looking forward for my kid, people in the future are not going to have the same ocean that I have today,” Moffitt said.

As you might expect, having tickets to the front row of a global environmental catastrophe is taking an increasingly emotional toll on scientists, and in some cases pushing them toward advocacy. Of the two dozen or so scientists I interviewed for this piece, virtually all drifted into apocalyptic language at some point.

Read more:

What Zero-Growth Economics Really Means . . . . . Really

Below is a link to a paper (PDF) written by Ted Trainer in 2011. It should be noted that Trainer is considered by many to be a controversial figure for his long-standing opinions favouring utopian, simplistic lifestyles. On the other hand this is a refreshingly honest look at the enormity of both the constellation of crises facing the world and the resistance against attempts to alleviate them.

The radical implications of a zero growth economy – Ted Trainer, 2011

“The magnitude and seriousness of the global resource and environmental problem is not generally appreciated. Only when this is grasped is it possible to understand that the social changes required must be huge, radical and far reaching”.

Another criticism of Ted Trainer is that he writes in a way that will almost guarantee his ideas will be rejected by the majoity of people living in a modern, industrial society. This is probably true but since most writers on this subject, including scientists, water down their language and by extension the seriousness of their ideas in an attempt to retain their audience the apparent scale of the problems is diminished, citizen understanding is crippled and the need for a response by those empowered to make change evaporates. In short, someone has to tell it like it is!

“Our society is grossly unsustainable – the levels of consumption, resource use and ecological impact we have in rich countries like Australia are far beyond levels that could be kept up for long or extended to all people. Yet almost everyone’s supreme goal is to increase material living standards and the GDP and production and consumption, investment, trade, etc., as fast as possible and without any limit in sight. There is no element in our suicidal condition that is more important than this mindless obsession with accelerating the main factor causing the condition”.

One of the growing set of tepid responses to Anthropogenic Climate Change is the use of carbon credits which can be traded in a market and transfer one industry’s excess emissions to another which, often for completely circumstantial reasons, is not emitting up to it’s quota. This is the quintessential example of “When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and should also remind us of Einstein’s warning not to use the tool that caused the problem to try to fix it. If you read the paper, you will note that markets are on the things-to-be-eliminated list.

I had been looking for a reasonably comprehensive description of a zero-growth or steady-state economy and this is the best I have found so far. It helps that it corroborates my own thinking about how an economy can actually serve the Earth and the majority of those who use it, rather that serving a tiny minority and causing gross inequity.

Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions

The case of the world’s food supply

“Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp”.

In this case the author is talking about the world’s food supply, However the statement could as easily be applied to the climate, the oceans, soil, economics, forestry, the atmosphere, the web of life, the financial system, health care, waste management – or any of the components of all the crises of the 21st century.

Western thinking is particularly unsuited to dealing with complex systems as we tend to objectify anything that can be individually identified and treat the resulting objects in isolation from each other. This produces a situation like the classic story of the little Dutch boy sticking his fingers into a small leak in a disintegrating dyke; you run out of fingers or ideas before you have a significant effect on the problem.

Eastern thinkers (Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern) and most aboriginal peoples tend to see everything in its context so complex systems, networks and inter-connections are natural to them and easier to understand and visualize. Some academics feel the agricultural revolution was the start of western style thinking as people could specialize instead of playing a full slate of roles as with hunter-gatherer societies. Others lean more towards the ancient Greek philosophers as the main source.

In any case, with the power to make change weighted so heavily towards those who “can’t see the forest for the trees” and don’t understand the need for change, the rest of the 21st century and beyond, if there is a beyond, is liable to be a distopian time to be a human.

The new Alberta-fied NDP view of energy

Rachel Notley follows in Alison Redford’s footsteps with Quebec talks

Energy is a ‘product’ best moved through pipelines. Hafta look elsewhere for 21st century thinking I guess . . .

“[Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard] understands energy continues to be a key driver of economic prosperity not just in Alberta but across Canada and he acknowledged pipelines are ultimately the best way to move that product.”

In case anyone wants to know, here’s a 21st century idea:
Use ‘conventional’ oil, refined as close as practical to the source, to build the necessary infrastructure to power a sustainable energy future. This includes a very smart grid, right to the house/business, electric transportation vehicles, batteries and other storage solutions, solar, wind, tide, wave, micro-hydro, all including R&D. This infrastructure would also require a large on-going workforce for operations, maintenance, retro-fitting and future expansion and upgrading, also including R&D.

Compare this with fracking, steaming, mining, polluting and sending the product through a pipeline and tankers to other nations who will hopefully have entered the 21st century and killed the market for this sort of outdated production. This would provide a few jobs, for a short time and no future.

Intentional and Coincidental Dissociation of Consequences

(If you think the title is a mouthful, wait until the full reality hits you square in the face.)

I am currently reading Invisible Nature – Kenneth Worthy, 2013.

Here is an excerpt about an incident from almost 25 years ago that says a great deal about how Humanity has come to the sorry juncture of the present:

“The stark reality of poverty and degraded environments is illustrated dramatically by an infamous December 1991 leaked memo authored by Lawrence Summers, then the chief ecomomist of the World Bank: ‘Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to LDCs [less developed countries]? . . . I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that . . . I’ve always thought the the under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.'”

This book talks about how we in the world of globalised consumerism are so dissociated from the resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, marketing and disposal of the goods we purchase, use and throw out that we cannot make moral decisions about how we live our lives. This dissociation includes time, space and understanding. Typically we shift the consequeces of our decisions onto future generations of people who live in other geographical areas. Also, since we often do not understand the processes and materials which are being used, even if we tried we could not act as moral beings.