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.

Advertisements

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.

A Revolutionary New Understanding [about a complete lack of understanding]

Invisible Nature: Healing The Destructive Divide Between People And The Environment —  Kenneth Worthy – Prometheus Books – August 6, 2013


The above book is described as being “A revolutionary new understanding of the precarious modern human-nature relationship and a path to a healthier, more sustainable world.”  The full description as posted by Chapters-Indigo continues:

“Amidst all the wondrous luxuries of the modern world—smartphones, fast intercontinental travel, Internet movies, fully stocked refrigerators—lies an unnerving fact that may be even more disturbing than all the environmental and social costs of our lifestyles. The fragmentations of our modern lives, our disconnections from nature and from the consequences of our actions, make it difficult to follow our own values and ethics, so we can no longer be truly ethical beings. When we buy a computer or a hamburger, our impacts ripple across the globe, and, dissociated from them, we can’t quite respond. Our personal and professional choices result in damages ranging from radioactive landscapes to disappearing rainforests, but we can’t quite see how.

Environmental scholar Kenneth Worthy traces the broken pathways between consumers and clean-room worker illnesses, superfund sites in Silicon Valley, and massively contaminated landscapes in rural Asian villages. His groundbreaking, psychologically based explanation confirms that our disconnections make us more destructive and that we must bear witness to nature and our consequences. Invisible Nature shows the way forward: how we can create more involvement in our own food production, more education about how goods are produced and waste is disposed, more direct and deliberative democracy, and greater contact with the nature that sustains us.”


Assuming that the above is correct, which seems to me to be a perfectly safe and sane assumption, are we all committing an immoral act by continuing to live in our industrialized societies? Of course we are. This may be a major part of the reason that people of good will, let’s just call them “Good People”, are so confused and conflicted about what they can do as individuals to aid the healing processes so urgently required. In a world so complex that we cannot know how to be ethical or moral, how can we be expected to understand the science, or the economics, or the psychology behind what is happening all around us but which we experience only as a fog of life, much like the fog of war experienced by combat soldiers.

I will be embarking upon this revolutionary pathway as soon as our fine, local book store Volume One procures the book for me. Wish me luck.

A Reason For Celebration

. . . . . and now, something completely different for this blog and, hopefully for your thoughts. An ecological book about the place of the human species in the cosmos — written by a Roman Catholic priest; and a passage from the Old Testament — quoted by me!

(From Wikipedia) Thomas Berry, C.P. (November 9, 1914 – June 1, 2009) was a Catholic priest of the Passionist order, cultural historian and ecotheologian (although cosmologist and geologian – or “Earth scholar” – were his preferred descriptors). Among advocates of deep ecology and “ecospirituality” he is famous for proposing that a deep understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe is a necessary inspiration and guide for our own effective functioning as individuals and as a species.

The following excerpt is from his book ‘The Great Work’ – 1999


Even beyond the Earth, the sense of community would extend throughout the entire universe seen as a single coherent community that has emerged into being with a total dependece of each component on all the others. Indeed, we need to think of the universe as the supreme norm of reality and value, with all component members of the universe participating in this context, each in accord with its own proper role.


This was a great validation for me of a point I have been trying to make about the need to raise human conciousness in order for us to recognize the need to take action against the aggregation of crises we have created and which now threatens the very continuance of our species.

If this view of the universe could be brought into the common conscience it would be a great cause for celebration, not trepidation and all that would be left would be the event which would allow us to “see the face of God” as explained in Exodus 33:20 (NIV) – But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

Field Notes From THE Catastrophe

I recently began reading “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” – Elizabeth Kolbert, 2006 and was initially happy to have found the ideal first book for those who are new to concerns about THE catastrophe(s) which will shape the future of human life on Planet Earth. To explain the oddity of the expression THE catastrophe(s), THE is capitalized to indicate the only issue that really counts in the present human condition and the appended pluralism highlights that this issue is a tightly interconnected “perfect storm” of crises.

This book is concise – 187ppg for the main body; accurate – with a couple of very minor and inconsequential errors in science (based on other sources); and should be eminently understandable by anyone with the equivalent of a Canadian high school education. Elizabeth Kolbert is a very experienced journalist (New York Times, New Yorker magazine) and obviously takes great pains and knows how do do her research. Her sources are a Who’s Who of legitimate experts on, the Arctic, climate modelling, ancient civilizations, biology, US politics and ocean levels.

The only reasons I am presently depressed by this book is that I have had to relive all the missed opportunities since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the G.W. Bush fiasco of America, the grotesque degradation of Canada by Stephen Harper – not mentioned in the book but ever-present in my thoughts – and the exposure of the depth of greed, ignorance and stupidity of the biological species of which I am a part.

However, of the fifty-some-odd books I have read over the past several years relating to these interconnected crises, I would strongly recommend this one as a place to start a serious exploration of our future under continuance of the business-as-usual model of civilization.

When my generation entered parenthood in the 1960’s, we thought we were bringing children into a world that was improving and would keep doing so as far as we could see into the future. In actuality I can now look back and see that, by the end of that decade, my own Quality of Life had begun to descend. I now look at Standard of Living as measured by GDP – the total amount of money we spend annually as a nation – and Quality of Life as quantified only be a general feeling of well-being, as being in reverse relationship – as the first goes up, the second goes down.

This feeling is corroborated by the increasing incidence of psychological illness, stress, obesity; environmentally forced or lifestyle diseases such as asthma, COPD, novel forms of cancer, diabetes; and zoonotic diseases which take advantage of over-crowding and human movement into previously unoccupied areas.

So – what to do?

First, we can stop reproducing ourselves. Obviously, that won’t happen. However, even to leave our descendants a chance of what we would consider to be a liveable life, we need to achieve large reductions in population. If we don’t, part of the un-liveableness of future human life will be nature’s way of dealing with over-population – pandemic. Perhaps we are currently seeing early, and so far controllable manifestations of this with HIV/AIDS, Ebola and related hemorrhagic fevers; avian, porcine and possibly equine Influenzas; the re-occurrence of mumps and measles and the mysterious polio-like disease affecting children in the US.

In order for the viral world to mount a horror show that would top anything Hollywood has ever produced, a single strain could evolve the following traits — it would be zoonotic (able to pass between species including human like a number of avian influenzas), pass from human to human through aerosols as easily as measles, have a long incubation period and be as deadly as ebola. Currently, virologists are saying that this is not likely to occur but, on the other hand, a bit of reading about past viral evolution seems to indicate that anyone who expresses confidence about what viruses may or may not do next is skating on thin ice. One outbreak of such a virus near a large city and 3 weeks of worldwide air traffic should lead to the normal pattern of those who look after the sick being the second wave and those who look after disposal of bodies being the third and nothing much left but to roll the credits.

Second, we can stop denying the science and the voluminous evidence all around us that massive change is already happening and start demanding that our so-called leaders do something to counter it. Reduction of lifestyle, sustainable energy, the end of economic growth, universal education (especially of girls), localization and raising individual levels of consciousness would all be good places to start. You can start this last one right now with a trip to your public library.

You might point out that the changes outlined above will never be initiated by democratically elected officials and you would be right — so maybe it’s time to take a second look at anarchy (if we do nothing we will get it anyway). Or just to realize that business-as-usual, including nation states and their political and economic systems are “just so 20th century” and get our butts into the 21st. It has already been here for 15 years for those who have been too busy shopping to notice.

Different Strokes . . . (of the pen)

I have just finished reading Derrick Jensen”s “Endgame – Volume II : Resistance”; and started “The Long Descent” by John Michael Greer (2008). Jensen sees the end of the Industrial Age as sudden and catastrophic and councels the hastening of that event by whatever means we have at our disposal. The reason for this is to save as many resources as possible for the rebuilding of society by following generations. I don’t take exception to any of his thinking as described in the book.

Greer, on the other hand, sees the end coming as a long and painful descent to a time with a much smaller population to match the much more limited residue of resources. This has been the result of the ending of most, if not all previous civilizations which have simply run out of  resources as we are currently doing. His councel is to keep looking ahead at reality, transition as painlessly as can be done and emphasize the retention of culture and knowledge where possible.  I also agree with his premises and view for the future.

A third route into the future is the one we are currently following, pretend the crises don’t exist and carry on with the status quo — this route will, without question be the most damaging to Earth and may well leave humanity with no chance of survival. At the very least, isolated pockets of our descendants would have a place in nature similar to the earliest of the human species — both predator and prey.

Below is an excerpt from “The Long Descent” —


” . . . Imagine that someone, confronted with a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, insisted instead that he would live forever. For that reason, he refused either to treat the illness or make sure his family had some means of support in the event of his death. He would be considered completely irresponsible by most people — and for good reason. This is exactly the collective situation we’re in right now. For more than three decades we’ve known exactly what factors are pushing industrial society towards its own collapse, and it’s no secret what has to be done to make the transition to sustainability, but the vast majority of people in the industrial world remain unwilling to embrace the necessary changes — and nothing currently suggests that they are interested in thinking about the generations in the future who will grow up in the ruins of our society.

At this point it’s almost certainly too late to manage a transition to sustainability on a global or national scale, even if the political will to attempt it existed — which it clearly does not. It’s not too late, though, for individuals, groups, and communities to make the transition themselves, and to do what they can to preserve essential cultural and practical knowledge for the future. The chance that today’s political and business interests will do anything useful in our present situation is small enough that it’s probably not worth considering.  . . .”


I see these 2 concepts as complementary rather than opposing. At my age (75), I can’t move quickly enough to take part in “removing” dams to let the salmon back up the river without getting caught but I can have a place in at least promoting intentional communities, shelters built from natural materials, permaculture, steady-state economics and other ways of living on the land without destroying it, something that Aldo Leopold said we had never learned how to do. That way, the dam removers will have a place to hang out between gigs and nutritious food to keep their strength (and speed) up.

Judgement Day (secular style)

One last (for now) excerpt from Endgame by Derrick Jensen. This is the most important of all and that which no one should be able to avoid reading.


 

“To whom will you be called upon to answer? By whom do you wish to be called upon to answer?

With every word I write—expecially when what I write scares me—I think about these questions. And here are the answers I come to every day. I write for the salmon, and for the trees, and for the soil beneath my feet. I write for the bees, frogs, and salamanders. I write for bats and owls. I write for sharks and grizzly bears. When I find myself not wanting to tell the truth as I understand it to be—when I find the truth too scary, too threatening—I think of them, and I think of what I owe them: my life. I will not—cannot—disappoint them.

And I consider myself answerable to—responsible to—the humans who will come after, who will inherit the wreckage our generation is leaving to them. When I want to lie, to turn my face away from the horrors, to understate the magnitude of what we must do and what we must unmake, to give answers that are not as deep and clear and real as I can possibly comprehend and articulate, I picture myself standing before humans a hundred years from now, and I picture myself answering to them for my actions and inactions. Them, too, I will not—cannot—disappoint.”

Dam (sic) Civilization

Starting a couple of months age, I hit a wall in my reading regimen. Books that were too long, too specific or overly academic put a ponderous damper on my enthusiasm for the (truthful, meaningful and real) written word.

Then, for Father’s Day, my granddaughter gave me a copy of Alan Weisman’s Countdown (2013), long but the subject needed it to be. I got back on track and followed up quickly with Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead (2004) and John A. Livingston’s Rogue Primate (1994). The stage was set for my current read – Endgame, Derrick Jensen (2006).

“There are two million dams in [America], 75,000 of them over six feet tall. Every one of these dams will someday fail, yet before constructing these two million dams, nobody bothered to find out what would happen to the rivers when the inevitable happened.

What makes this even more inexcusable, absurd, obscene—evil—is that we can say the same thing about deforestation, the murder of the oceans, the manufacture of CFCs, the fabrication of plastics, the burning of oil, in fact all of civilization. Nobody bothered to find out what effects these would have on the natural world. The reason is clear: those who make the decisions don’t care.

If the entire culture is predicated on an unexamined self-assumed right to exploit everyone and everything around you, why should you bother to think about the effects of your actions on others?”

This is a book which, with the exception of the section on dam removal that I am currently reading, I have thought through. Over several years, countless periods of sleeplessness, usually bracketed around 3:00am have enabled me to independently come up with so many of the concepts Jensen built this work on: western society is insane, corporations and their institutions are the enemy of the Earth, governments and their institutions are the enemy of the Earth, civilization is the enemy of the Earth, globalization must be dismantled, financial systems must be dismantled, current systems of government must be dismantled, civilization itself must be dismantled, “This culture is insane. It must be stopped.”

So, to me, the book reads like an old and trusted friend, corroborating my thoughts on all the most extreme and most urgently needed changes to reality; REAL reality, the reality of the only planet in the multiverse which will ever support the lives of homo sapiens (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

On Eudaimonia And The Flourishing Soul

An excerpt from my current read, ‘What is Good’ – A.C. Grayling, 2003:

“Aristotle had a particular concept of happiness in mind, to which he gave the name ‘eudaimonia’. . . a much richer notion than what is now generally meant by happiness. More precisely, ‘eudaimonia’ means a flourishing state of the soul. The English word ‘happiness’ (especially in contemporary usage) embodies a very pallid conception in comparison; one could make everyone happy by putting suitable medications in the public water supply, but that would scarcely convey what Aristotle had in mind.”


Below is a review from Goodreads:

One of the most fundamental questions in our life is to find out what we value – what principles we want to live by and which codes we will use to guide our behaviour. Most of us want to live a good life. But what, in today’s secular society, does ‘good’ actually mean? To classical Greeks, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the senses, creativity and beauty were all aspects of life to strive for. Then came the volcanic declarations of St Paul and his fundamentalist ideas on sin and human nature. In WHAT IS GOOD?, A.C. Grayling examines these and other proposals on how to live a good life, from the ‘heroic’ ideals of the Greek poets to Kant’s theories on freedom and the UN Declaration on Human Rights.


aristotleI tried to read this book over a year ago and did not get far before inserting a bookmark and placing it on the “Partially Read” shelf. There it sat until a few mornings ago (about 5:30am) when, as I was thinking about something in the current human condition, I detected a whisper – “Take another look at that book by A.C. Grayling” . . . so I did. I’m very glad I stopped when I did and elated that I started over from the beginning. I’m sure it is destined to be a ‘can’t-put-it-down’ tome this time around.

So here I am at 74 years old finally taking a serious look at classical Greek philosophy and lovin’ it . . . go figger eh? By the way, the picture is Aristotle, not me, just wanted to be “perfectly clear” about that.

There’s Reality and Then There’s REALITY!!

Is cable news worth the cost (or worth anything at all).

Below is an excerpt from Giles Slade’s excellent book “AMERICAN EXODUS: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival” – 2013. He is describing an exchange between meteorologist Paul Douglas and a TV executive at the beginning of the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave which killed nearly 800 people:


We said, “This is going to be a major story. People are going to be dying This is something you’ld better hit very, very hard . . . I’ll never forget [the executive producer] . . . wanted to do a live shot of some place . . . hotter than Chicago. She kept wanting . . . a featury, lifestyle kind of cutesy . . . story . . . I kept pleading with her . . . “You’re missing the point. We should have people at the hospitals, we should have people at City Hall.” It degenerated into a shouting match . . . She started screaming “You don’t get it! This is television!” . . . I said, “I do get it. I understand. This is a dangerous situation for Chicago. We’re the hottest spot. People will be dying later today. That’s your story.”


You be the judge. Also, take a look here for a glimmer of hope and a glimpse of the difficulties around reporting or finding real, truthful news in a 21st century capitalist democracy.

BTW – For those of us who are Canadians, Slade’s book could be sub-titled “Guess who’s coming to dinner . . . and never going home again.”