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.

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.

” I want to thank, Enbridge, Monsanto, Nestle and General Motors for their on-going support . . . “

A couple of days ago, I was watching a clip from the US that included a wonderous idea for electoral reform. I don’t remember where I watched it or who it was — fortunately it doesn’t matter — the idea is this:

For the duration of the term of office, any elected official when visible to the public should be required to wear a Nascar style jumpsuit emblazened with the logos of hers/his corporate sponsors. The name of the corporation must be clearly readable to television viewers or bystanders in the case of a public appearance.

Any corporation sponsoring politicians would be required to maintain an easily found website with the extent of all current political support as well as historical records including names and amounts. This would allow we citizens to know who and what those we elect really represent.


I am reading “Simplicity” – Edward de Bono, 1998.

The author points out the difficulty of simplifying forms if it is undertaken by people who know the system.

“They cannot see why anyone should find ambiguities or difficulties. Perhaps there could be a professional ‘simple-minded’ body which could be hired to ‘misunderstand’ basic instructions.The experts would then have to outwit the simple-minded people so that these people could no longer make mistakes.”

Good News

We describe less than one of the smallest thing we can measure as Zero. But, what if there is an infinitely small as well as an infinitely large? If we can’t get to Zero, is there a Zero? Would not infinitely small be the same as infinitely large and if so, would size still matter?

I would think not.

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.

“Any use of violence implies a failure to love.” — are you sure about this?

Below is a passage from Derrick Jensen’s Endgame Volume 2 in where he takes issue with dogmatic pacifism which he equates with fundamentalism as practiced by zealots of various stripes.

“I have many other problems with the pacifist use of the idea that force is solely the dominion of those in power. It’s certainly true that the master uses the tool of violence, but that does not mean he owns it. Those in power have effectively convinced us they own the land, which is to say they’ve convinced us to give up our inalienable right to access our own landbases. They’ve effectively convinced us they own conflict resolution methods (which they call laws), which is to say they’ve convinced us to give up our inalienable right to resolve our own conflicts (which they call taking the law into your own hands). They’ve convinced us they own water. They’ve convinced us they own the wild (the government could not offer “timber sales” unless we all agreed it owned the trees in the first place). They’re in the process of convincing us they own the air. The state has for millennia been trying to convince us it owns a monopoly on violence, and abusers have been trying to convince us for far longer than that. Pacifists are more then willing to grant them that, and to shout down anyone who disagrees.

Well, I disagree. Violence does not belong exclusively to those at the top of the hierarchy, no matter how much abusers and their allies try to convince us. They have never convinced wild animals, including wild humans, and they will never convince me.”