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.

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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.

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.

Suzuki’s Bus Driver

One evening some time ago, I watched an interview of Dr. David Suzuki by George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC television. George started with a very simple, lead-in question (it doesn’t take too much to prime David Suzuki’s pump!) and Suzuki jumped up into the “Big Red Chair”, assumed a position close enough to the classic “Lotus” for me to wince, and started — I can’t claim to a perfect memory of the following but it think it is very close:

People say I always look like I’m pissed off, well I AM pissed off. It’s as if we are all on a bus travelling at a million miles an hour, straight at a precipice. Nobody’s saying “Hit the brakes”, nobody’s saying “Turn the wheels”, we’re all just milling around, trying to find the best seat.

So, who hired the bus driver — we did. That’s what our vaunted democratic process has been twisted into, an instrument to find and appoint a bus driver who will drive us all over a cliff. Even though we are travelling a million miles an hour it seems it is still too far from the edge for us to understand what is being done to us. In any case, we think that before we get there we will have expired, been thrown off the bus and replaced with younger generations. Maybe not, it is looking like the timing is much shorter than we had estimated from computer models .

American novelist James Howard Kunstler called the constellation of crises surrounding global climate change “The Long Emergency” and our human brains have not had enough evolutionary time to react to slow-moving disasters instead of to fast-moving predators suddenly appearing in our field of vision. Consequently, we may be able to see the logic but we are overwhelmed by the complexity we need to deal with to find solutions. We are like a herd of deer-in-the-headlights, trying to determine which way to run when the only bad decision is to stand still and do nothing.

The Long Emergency will play out over generations, but the end result will be the same unless the world’s leaders start taking massive action NOW! By “leaders” I do not mean those we have elected, I mean real leaders who can see what needs to be done and do it.

These will be people whose consciousness functions at a level far above that of Suzuki’s Bus Driver and more like that of the man himself.

Are Humans Capable of Acting as if the Earth Really Mattered?

This post is about a small excerpt from an interview with author Susan Meeker-Lowry (Economics As If The Earth Really Mattered: A Catalyst Guide to Socially Conscious Investing – New Society Publishers, 1988) conducted during the late 1980’s. This interview appears in “Turtle Talk: Voices For A Sustainable Future”, a collection of interviews done by Christopher Plant and Judith Plant for The New Catalyst magazine.


Susan Meeker Lowry: . . . We have to look at longer term strategies with more spiritual, natural and community kinds of rewards.

TNC: In today’s world that seems a difficult prospect. What do you think the chances are of people choosing a lifestyle change and the future of the planet over the immediate prospect of jobs and money?

Susan Meeker Lowry: I think that the chances are getting better every day because the Earth is speaking very loudly. I believe that more and more people are aware that if we don’t start changing things today we will not have that option in 5 or 6 years—it will be too late. People don’t want to hear this, they want to run away. But if we can be there at every turn, saying, “there is no escape,” forcing people to face reality, and then work with them in the community to give them hope… We have to do it—we’ve all got kids. We have to believe it’s possible to change.


First, notice the two instances of “believe”. This is a good illustration of the reason I try not to use that word for anything that has not been scientifically proven beyond doubt, resonable or otherwise – I would use “hope”.

Also, remember that this interview was conducted in the late 1980’s. If science is correct in assigning a 30 year inertial lag between CO2 emissions and their effects on climate, we are experiencing the effects of emissions happening at the time of the interview and they were experiencing those made when I first started working in the late 1950’s.

A reminder – world population (billions): 1958 –  2.9, 1988 – 5.1, 2015 – 7.3

. . . and atmospheric CO2 levels (ppm): 1958 – 315, 1988 – 350, 2015 – 400

So here we are in 2015. Earth is speaking more loudly than ever, people still don’t want to hear and I rarely get as far as “there is no escape” before they have run away. I also have no idea how to “force” people who are so heavily invested in a fantasy to face reality. I do know that, if you mention “lifestyle change” in a group of people, sure enough, they run away. That may change my lifestyle for the better but it won’t do anything for my grandkids.

So . . . What’s Up?

Homo Sapiens is the only species of life we know which has the abilities to choose how it lives in the world. Right now, we are living in a dangerously destructive manner and threatening all life on Earth, including our own.


Imagine a large flock of birds living in a mature, deciduous tree – a Big Leaf Maple in my part of the world. These birds have found a food source in the seeds of the tree and an even better one in the insects that live in and under the tree’s bark which they can expose by pecking and pulling the bark off the tree trunk. Ideal nest building material is available within walking distance from the small root fibres of the tree which the birds scratch up with their feet and pull off with their beaks. Life is good and the flock thrives, increasing its population with every passing year.

Until the catastrophe. One spring the tree buds do not appear; there will be no seeds in the fall. Insects are plentiful and easy to obtain as what bark is left is now dry, curled up and easy to knock off the tree. When the birds run down to the ground to gather nesting material, they find that the rootlets are also dry and do not bend into a suitable shape for nest building. With the females ready to lay, a decision is made to move to another tree.

There are no other Big Leaf Maples nearby as no seeds have survived to germinate for many years. The birds find that their wing structure has atrophied from lack of use and they can no longer fly well enough to reach another stand. Eventually, the eggs are laid in shallow nests on the ground but predators ensure that none hatch. Although the mature birds survive well enough for their normal lifespan, no new chicks are ever produced and the species is extirpated from that locale.


Now imagine a massive population of large, self-aware mammels living in a way that destroys all the resources they rely on for life.The air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the clothing and shelter that protects them from the elements. Oceans are acidified, soils made barren, forests denuded, grasslands turned to deserts, wetlands drained, aquifers polluted or emptied, severe storms amplified. Evidence abounds to show that the change being made by humans during the anthropocene epoch is greater and compressed into a shorter time period than corresponding changes during any of the five preceding great extinction events.

Many non-scientific people believe that new and wonderous technologies will emerge to save humanity and the rest of life from these depredations. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of fantasy, magic, wizardry, super-heroism and other phantasmagorical subjects in current fiction. So far the two most promising candidates for feeding ourselves might be Soylent Green, which was foreshadowed in a 1973 Hollywood movie and Soylent Pink, which we already have in abundance.

Looking for ideas for the weekend? Soylent Green and 1984 would make a good pairing for a depressing late-night home theatre extravaganza.

Self-Imposed Extinction is Apparently Preceeded by Mass Insanity

Read this release from the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) regarding the CCW Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) which will take place from 13 to 17 April 2015 at the United Nations in Geneva.

Humankind is facing the very real prospect of extinction from the effects of Anthropogenic Climate Change and what are we doing? — developing weapons systems which can make their own decisions about who to kill and when. Although the potential will exist for these systems to solve the climate change issue (everyone working at fossil fuel company headquarters, politicians around the globe who continue to support fossil fuel use, anyone driving a Hummer and so on) this is not what they are being developed for . . . at least not until someone hacks into the control software.

To great fanfare about “intelligence” and “lithium from Russia” they will be sent off to unfriendly nations (accompanied by a couple of CF18’s to show that Canadian politicos have big balls too) to bomb electronic factories and stop those countries’ WMD-by-LAWS programs; which don’t exist of course.

Picture these drones gleefully raining down death upon hapless Bangladeshi factory workers who are waving banners declaring that they are just developing a more efficient way of delivering pizza.

My question would be: How long can these things continue to Autonomously fuel themselves and continue operations after the last humans have apparently expired? Do they ultimately win or will there be some “Preppers” hiding in culvert pipes buried 40 feet down in the USA (eating KD that is years past its best before date and drinking their own, or possibly each others’ urine) who will emerge after one of the LAWS has imbibed the last gulp of Jet A.

Either way, I wouldn’t wanna survive this one.

Global Military Dominance — “When will they ever learn . . .”

Yet another good news / bad news story, this one from TomDispatch in the U.S.A. – who would have guessed that, eh?

The good:

“Whatever world we now inhabit, it’s not the twentieth century anymore. Though no other power has risen to directly challenge Washington, the United States no longer qualifies as the planet’s “sole superpower,” “last superpower,” “global sheriff,” or any of the similarly self-congratulatory phrases that were the coin of the realm in the years after the Soviet Union dissolved.”

. . . . . and the bad:

“Only one small problem, . . . the Department of Defense evidently doesn’t have a clue.

Senator Tom Cotton — he of the “Senate 47″ — who just gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor calling for a policy of total U.S. “global military dominance” and bemoaning that “our military, suffering from years of neglect, has seen its relative strength decline to historic levels.”

The “one small problem” referred to above is that this is shaping up as a new “cold”, or more likely “hot” war between America and China with all the rest of us hoping the missles won’t go astray and land on us by mistake. I lived with that fear from the age of five when they dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki until 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev ended the insane policy of Mutually Assured Distruction aka “MAD”. It seems that particular insanity was only in remission and will probably return to join the others, like perpetual economic growth, that we deem necessary in order to keep the world unstable.