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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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.

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.

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.”

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.”

On Effecting Flexibility of Worldview

An interesting question just occurred as I was having a second cup of coffee and reading Endgame – Derrick Jensen (2006) – “Can a person whose worldview is based on a rigid and un-provable ideology (economic, political, religious, whatever) change that view?”

No.

So why think about it?

Because virtually every human being who wields power has such a worldview.

Is there something that can be done about that?

Maybe, but probably only one or two that are currently legal in most industrialized countries.

The Least of 3 Evils

Image

Land, Sea, Air – which should we lose first?

While most people who read this post will be cognisant of the damage being done by the continued extraction of bituminous hydrocarbons from the Alberta tarsands, let’s for the moment assume it will continue and that an export route involving a pipeline to the west coast and tanker traffic to Asia will be established. Immediately, we see two distinct and ominous possibilites for catastrophe in British Columbia; the probability of a ruptured pipe spilling oil into pristine fresh water resources and fish habitat and the just as probable threat of destruction of the coast by another tanker accident. There is, of course, a third disaster to be caused by this corporate infrastructure.

exxon_valdez_0323

Let’s say that this pipeline is built of kryptonite or, being blessed amongst pipelines, enjoys heavenly immunity. Likewise for any tanker which enters Canadian waters off the coast of British Columbia to load the issue of the pipeline. This would ensure that the lands and waters of British Columbia would remain safe until the pipeline’s owner, the oil industry and the applicable foreign investors were satisfied that they had made a fair profit and it was time to safely decommission and un-install the pipe for recycling . . . right.

But what about the emissions from all the “product” that made it “safely” to “market” and was burned?

This would almost certainly be the worst result of all as it would not only hasten the end of civilization and the human species, but just might be enough to be the sole cause. So, it seems the best possible outcome would be a catastrophic rupture of the line on its first day of operation, anything else would be far more dangerous.

The Great Enemy of Truth

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic”.
This was John F. Kennedy speaking to the Yale graduating class on June 11, 1962.

I am currently reading “Smelling Land” by David Sanborne Scott and the author opens a very good explanation of human reluctance to changes in the way we think with the above quotation.

Below is an excerpt from the book:


“It seems to me there are three ways we acquire knowledge—by accretion, integration or substitution. Depending on which route we’ve traveled to knowledge, new information sometimes requires that we pay an emotional price for the insight, understanding and comprehension we’ve found. So let’s try to anticipate how the route influences the emotional price.”

Accretion is the process of gluing additional information to the body of knowledge we already have. It can be fun. Usually the new information is accepted willingly and without stress. A single, easily understandable factoid is added to our brain’s immense memory capacity—disturbing no embedded knowledge, demanding little intellectual effort, requiring no emotional price. Everyone has their own examples—a new football scoring record would suffice.”

Integration is the process by which we come to appreciate a new and better way to link together the knowledge we already have, to place bits and pieces within a clarifying pattern. Since integration requires refitting many data chunks, to test how they fall within a new template, the process often needs a little more thought, more reflection. Still, although the effort may be greater, the resulting synthesis can be joyous compensation. We seldom need to pay an emotional price. Indeed, we often get an emotional high. An integration experience for a student mechanical engineer could occur when, in a moment of revelation, she suddenly realizes that the vector calculus equations she’s been applying to fluid mechanics can be wonderfully applied to the electromagnetic field theory that her electrical engineering roommate is studying, so that, together, they understand both fluid and electromagnetics a lot better.”

Substitution is different. New, discordant. white-knuckle information crashes in upon long-held beliefs, upon our convictions. We first scurry about looking for counter-arguments. for rationales that will undermine the new information, allow it to be set aside. But if all defensive arguments fail, and if we’re willing to push aside pre-existing flawed perceptions, then substituting new knowledge can be a painful process. None but the courageous will tread here. A childhood substitution, a few days before Christmas, in your parent’s cupboard, the train set you’d asked for from the North Pole—and you suddenly realize there really isn’t any Santa Claus. Or even tougher, because we’re older with beliefs more solidified, might be when we come face to face with implacable flaws in political or religious ideologies we’ve held for as long as we can remember.”


Which path should I travel through life? Do I have a choice?

In his 1989 book “The Seat of the Soul”, author Gary Zucav talks about the world as witnessed by human personalities and that same world as lived through the human soul. He describes these alternate journeys through the same time and space by the same individual as being horizontal (personality) and vertical (soul).

“Each human soul has both guides and Teachers. A guide is not a Teacher. Guides are what might be thought of as experts in a certain field that are called in for consultation. If you are writing a book, for example, or creating a project, or organizing an event, a guide that has the quality of warmth, or creativity, or insight that you wish to incorporate into your work is available to you.

Teachers work on a more personal plane of involvement, so to speak, although they are impersonal energies that we personalize, that we feel a personal relationship with. A nonphysical Teacher brings you ever closer to your soul. It draws your attention to the vertical path, and to the difference between the vertical path and the horizontal path.

The vertical path is the path of awareness. It is the path of consciousness and conscious choice. The person who chooses to advance his or her spiritual growth, to cultivate awareness of his or her higher self, is on a vertical path. The vertical path is the path of clarity. The potential for the creation of clarity and the experience of interacting with your nonphysical Teacher are one and the same.

The horizontal path is the path that satisfies your personality. A businessman or a businesswoman, for example, who devotes his or her life to the accumulation of money is on a horizontal path.No matter how diverse his or her ventures may become, they are essentially identical. If they make money, they please the personality, and if they lose money, they distress the personality, but they do not serve the higher self. They do not serve his or her spiritual growth.

A person that seeks relationships only to gratify his or her own needs, such as his or her own emotional or sexual needs, will find thay each relationship is essentially identical, that the people in his or her life are replaceable, that experiences with the first and experiences with the second are essentially the same. This is the horizontal path. Each new experience in not really new. It is more of the same thing. To experience relationships of substance and depth requires approaching and entering into relationships with consciousness and concern for the other. That is the vertical path.

This does not mean that learning does not occur in all situations, and that when a horizontal path is no longer appropriate to a soul’s learning, that soul will not leave it behind. Sooner or later, each soul will turn toward authentic power. Every situation serves this goal, and every soul will reach it. The vertical path begins with the decision to do that consciously.”