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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Will Silicon Valley's digerati "solve" healthcare?

Light Holiday reading. I'm hotspotting off my iPhone from my Mother in Law's farm in northern Alabama.

I've cited/reviewed Peter Thiel's book "Zero to One" before. Here, here, and here.

apropos, excerpt from the current issue of Harper's:
Come With Us If You Want to Live
Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley

By Sam Frank

… I came across the Tumblr of Blake Masters, who was then a Stanford law student and tech entrepreneur in training. His motto — “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” — was taken from a science-fiction role-playing game. Masters was posting rough transcripts of Peter Thiel’s Stanford lectures on the founding of tech start-ups. I had read about Thiel, a billionaire who cofounded PayPal with Elon Musk and invested early in Facebook. His companies Palantir Technologies and Mithril Capital Management had borrowed their names from Tolkien. Thiel was a heterodox contrarian, a Manichaean libertarian, a reactionary futurist.

“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel wrote in 2009. Freedom might be possible, he imagined, in cyberspace, in outer space, or on high-seas homesteads, where individualists could escape the “terrible arc of the political.”…

Blake Masters — the name was too perfect — had, obviously, dedicated himself to the command of self and universe. He did CrossFit and ate Bulletproof, a tech-world variant of the paleo diet. On his Tumblr’s About page, since rewritten, the anti-belief belief systems multiplied, hyperlinked to Wikipedia pages or to the confoundingly scholastic website Less Wrong: “Libertarian (and not convinced there’s irreconcilable fissure between deontological and consequentialist camps). Aspiring rationalist/Bayesian. Secularist/agnostic/ignostic . . . Hayekian. As important as what we know is what we don’t. Admittedly eccentric.” Then: “Really, really excited to be in Silicon Valley right now, working on fascinating stuff with an amazing team.”

I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview. Thiel’s lectures posited a world in which democratic universalism had failed, and all that was left was a heroic, particularist, benevolent libertarianism. I found the rhetoric repellent but couldn’t look away; I wanted to refute it but only fell further in. I saw the utopianism latent in capitalism — that, as Bernard Mandeville had it three centuries ago, it is a system that manufactures public benefit from private vice. I started CrossFit and began tinkering with my diet. I browsed venal tech-trade publications, and tried and failed to read Less Wrong, which was written as if for aliens.

Then, in June 2013, I attended the Global Future 2045 International Congress at Lincoln Center. The gathering’s theme was “Towards a New Strategy for Human Evolution.” It was being funded by a Russian new-money type who wanted to accelerate “the realization of cybernetic immortality”; its keynote would be delivered by Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering. Kurzweil had popularized the idea of the singularity. Circa 2045, he predicts, we will blend with our machines; we will upload our consciousnesses into them. Technological development will then come entirely from artificial intelligences, beginning something new and wonderful.

After sitting through an hour of “The Transformation of Humankind — Extreme Paradigm Shifts Are Ahead of Us,” I left the auditorium of Alice Tully Hall. Bleary beside the silver coffee urn in the nearly empty lobby, I was buttonholed by a man whose name tag read MICHAEL VASSAR, METAMED RESEARCH. He wore a black-and-white paisley shirt and a jacket that was slightly too big for him. “What did you think of that talk?” he asked, without introducing himself. “Disorganized, wasn’t it?” A theory of everything followed. Heroes like Elon and Peter (did I have to ask? Musk and Thiel). The relative abilities of physicists and biologists, their standard deviations calculated out loud. How exactly Vassar would save the world. His left eyelid twitched, his full face winced with effort as he told me about his “personal war against the universe.” My brain hurt. I backed away and headed home.

But Vassar had spoken like no one I had ever met, and after Kurzweil’s keynote the next morning, I sought him out. He continued as if uninterrupted. Among the acolytes of eternal life, Vassar was an eschatologist. “There are all of these different countdowns going on,” he said. “There’s the countdown to the broad postmodern memeplex undermining our civilization and causing everything to break down, there’s the countdown to the broad modernist memeplex destroying our environment or killing everyone in a nuclear war, and there’s the countdown to the modernist civilization learning to critique itself fully and creating an artificial intelligence that it can’t control. There are so many different — on different timescales — ways in which the self- modifying intelligent processes that we are embedded in undermine themselves. I’m trying to figure out ways of disentangling all of that. . . .

“I’m not sure that what I’m trying to do is as hard as founding the Roman Empire or the Catholic Church or something. But it’s harder than people’s normal big-picture ambitions, like making a billion dollars.”

Vassar was thirty-four, one year older than I was. He had gone to college at seventeen, and had worked as an actuary, as a teacher, in nanotech, and in the Peace Corps. He’d founded a music- licensing start-up called Sir Groovy. Early in 2012, he had stepped down as president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, now called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), which was created by an autodidact named Eliezer Yudkowsky, who also started Less Wrong. Vassar had left to found MetaMed, a personalized-medicine company, with Jaan Tallinn of Skype and Kazaa, $500,000 from Peter Thiel, and a staff that included young rationalists who had cut their teeth arguing on Yudkowsky’s website. The idea behind MetaMed was to apply rationality to medicine — “rationality” here defined as the ability to properly research, weight, and synthesize the flawed medical information that exists in the world. Prices ranged from $25,000 for a literature review to a few hundred thousand for a personalized study. “We can save lots and lots and lots of lives,” Vassar said (if mostly moneyed ones at first). “But it’s the signal — it’s the ‘Hey! Reason works!’ — that matters. . . . It’s not really about medicine.” Our whole society was sick — root, branch, and memeplex — and rationality was the only cure.

In the auditorium, two neuroscientists had spoken about engineering the brain, and a molecular geneticist had discussed engineering the genome. A coffee break began, and a jazz trio struck up Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” Nearby, church bells rang noon. I asked Vassar about his friend Yudkowsky. “He has worse aesthetics than I do,” he replied, “and is actually incomprehensibly smart.” We agreed to stay in touch...

The entire (subscriber paywalled) article is a hoot. These people are at once incredibly intelligent and utterly, mind-rollingly naive. Lots of Silicon Valley VC money is being thrown at health care these days. Most of it will come to naught.

Another morsel:
Michael Vassar had predicted a “fairly total” cultural transition beginning within the next decade. This might sound insane, unless you buy into the near-term futurology emerging from outlets like TechCrunch and Wired, and from venture capitalists like Palihapitiya, Srinivasan, and Marc Andreessen.

In five years, an estimated 5.9 billion people will own smartphones. Anyone who can code, or who has something to sell, can be a free agent on the global marketplace. You can work from anywhere on your laptop and talk to anyone in the world; you can receive goods anywhere via drone and pay for them with bitcoins — that is, if you can’t 3-D print them at home. As software eats everything, prices will plunge. You won’t need much money to live like a king; it won’t be a big deal if your job is made obsolete by code or a robot. The rich will enjoy bespoke luxury goods and be first in line for new experiences, but otherwise there will be no differences among people; inequality will increase but cease to matter. Politics as we know it will lose relevance. Large, gridlocked states will be disrupted like any monopoly. Customer-citizens, armed with information, will demand transparency, accountability, choice. They will want their countries to be run as well as a start-up. There might be some civil wars, there might be many new nations, but the stabilizing force will be corporations, which will become even more like parts of a global government than they are today. Google and Facebook, for instance, will be bigger and better than ever: highly functional, monopolistic technocracies that will build out the world’s infrastructure. Facebook will be the new home of the public sphere; Google will automate everything.

Thiel and Vassar and Yudkowsky, for all their far-out rhetoric, take it on faith that corporate capitalism, unchecked just a little longer, will bring about this era of widespread abundance. Progress, Thiel thinks, is threatened mostly by the political power of what he calls the “unthinking demos.” ...
It's a long article. Worth the price of subscribing. I had some great, head-shaking laughs.


Is 2015 the Year We All Sequence Our Microbiomes?
Intriguing inventions for a healthier New Year

This is the era of an app for everything and everything in its app, and health is no exception. It makes sense: When you can try to monitor or improve anything with technology, why not use your devices to better yourself? 'Tis the season of resolutions after all. And while a lot of new health technology is silly, frivolous, or just plain doesn't work, there's some fun and useful stuff out there too...
Full Atlantic article here.


The Perils of Willpower
 At great risk of oversimplifying things, we can say that one way to make design more self-conscious and more sensitive to critiques of solutionism is to replace its fetish for psychology (and, increasingly, neuroscience) with a fetish for philosophy—both moral and political. Worrying about usability— the chief concern of many designers today— is like counting calories on the sinking Titanic. This obsession with usability, with making technology invisible and unobtrusive, has created a world where we are hardly aware of how much energy our households consume. It won’t take long until we discover that our smartphones, in their quest for usability, also hide an equally disturbing reality : that massive toxic dumps of electronic waste usually find their way to cash-strapped developing countries.

The triumph of psychology over philosophy is not limited to industrial design; policy designers and social engineers have succumbed to this trend as well— all in the name of science, for psychology and neuroscience are presumed to be more scientific than philosophy simply because they run experiments and tests. But the fact that matters of morality do not lend themselves to easy measurement does not mean we should disregard such concerns and recast them in neuroscientific and psychological terms. Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in discussions of willpower, in which once highly complex and painful decisions about right and wrong are now recast as instances of strong or weak will— which we can address by managing our willpower reserves carefully, much as we do our bank accounts. 

The very idea of willpower is enjoying a renaissance in psychology departments and partially explains the recent fascination with nudges and gamification. The basic idea is this: we have a fixed amount of willpower to spend on our decisions, so using it to pursue one course of action might make it harder for us to pursue another. Thus, if we convince ourselves not to have this delicious but high-fat cookie now, we won’t be strong enough to choose walking over driving an hour later. We can’t decline the cookie and the car simultaneously.
John Tierney and Roy Baumeister assert in their recent book about willpower that “decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions...”
Morozov, Evgeny (2013-03-05). To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (pp. 313-314, 338-339). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
Yevgeny's book is a blast. I've cited it before.


I finished the Yevgeny Morozov book. A wonderful read.
Mad Men, Faded Denims, and Real Phonies 
All these attempts to fix the human condition— to reduce our biases by quantifying everything, to circumvent the frailties of our memory by recording everything, to rid us of our lowly, provincial interests by getting technology companies to serve us a more nutritious information diet, to get us to do the right thing by turning everything in life into a game— are indicative of Silicon Valley’s unease with imperfection as well as its glorification of the powerful tools at its disposal. Our geek kings do not realize that inefficiency is precisely what shelters us from the inhumanity of Taylorism and market fundamentalism . When inefficiency is the result of a deliberative commitment by a democratically run community, there is no need to eliminate it, even if the latest technologies can accomplish that in no time. 

Silicon Valley’s greatest ambition, though, is to ensure that all our social interactions —and even ourselves— exist under the yoke of authenticity. The fear of appearing inauthentic, of being a fake, has propelled nearly as much technological innovation as pornography. As already noted , the quantifying urge of self-trackers, especially their desire to publish these numbers, should be seen as part of this quest to ensure— once and for all— that they are not just authentic but also original. We might all be thinking the same thoughts, using the same apps, and wearing the same T-shirts, but it’s quite reassuring to know that at least our DNA, daily caloric intake, sleeping patterns are different. 

But— and this is the implicit promise of self-tracking —perhaps if you track all those physical things long enough, you’ll uncover some deeper numerical pattern, something that will allow you to discover who you really are. As Gary Wolf notes, “Behind the allure of the quantified self is a guess that many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are. Our memories are poor; we are subject to a range of biases; we can focus our attention on only one or two things at a time.” And what will it take to discover “who we are”? Well, says Wolf, a bunch of self-tracking gadgets— reporting to the health -care industry or marketers on Madison Avenue— would do the job . “We don’t have a pedometer in our feet, or a breathalyzer in our lungs, or a glucose monitor installed into our veins. We lack both the physical and the mental apparatus to take stock of ourselves. We need help from machines.” Had Sigmund Freud lived long enough, he would have probably been replaced by a pedometer: in this brave new world , who needs psychoanalysis— the obsolete practice of narrative imagination —to “take stock of ourselves,” when the algorithmic option looks so tempting? ... Morozov, op cit (pp. 313-314).
Below: a Facebook friend hipped me to this.
Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich

One day in March of this year, a Google engineer named Justine Tunney created a strange and ultimately doomed petition at the White House website. The petition proposed a three-point national referendum, as follows:
  1. Retire all government employees with full pensions.
  2. Transfer administrative authority to the tech industry.
  3. Appoint [Google executive chairman] Eric Schmidt CEO of America.
This could easily be written off as stunt, a flamboyant act of corporate kiss-assery, which, on one level, it probably was. But Tunney happened to be serious. “It’s time for the U.S. Regime to politely take its exit from history and do what’s best for America,” she wrote. “The tech industry can offer us good governance and prevent further American decline.”...

If the Koch brothers have proved anything, it’s that no matter how crazy your ideas are, if you put serious money behind those ideas, you can seize key positions of authority and power and eventually bring large numbers of people around to your way of thinking. Moreover, the radicalism may intensify with each generation. Yesterday’s Republicans and Independents are today’s Libertarians. Today’s Libertarians may be tomorrow’s neoreactionaries, whose views flatter the prejudices of the new Silicon Valley elite...

California libertarian software developers inhabit a small and shallow world. It should be no surprise then, that, although [Peter] Thiel has never publicly endorsed Yarvin’s side project specifically, or the neoreactionary program in general, there is definitely a whiff of something Moldbuggy in Thiel’s own writing. For instance, Thiel echoed Moldbug in an infamous 2009 essay for the Cato Institute in which he explained that he had moved beyond libertarianism. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel wrote...
Read the entire piece.
"I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."
Let that sink in for a moment.

Recall the recent unsuccessful ballot effort by one of these billionaire Silicon Valley dudes to break California up into six new states, carving out the "best" for himself and his digerati brethren.

"iState" was to be simply known as "Silicon Valley," and I have no doubt that these people envisioned eventually moving the nation's capital from DC to it. (I now live in east bay Contra Cost County "Western Merlot.")

More Yevgeny:
Katie Stanton, a former Google executive who briefly worked for the Obama administration and currently works for Twitter, compared her experience in Washington to that of “a vegetarian trapped inside the sausage factory.” Her ex-boss, Google’s Eric Schmidt, lambasts Washington as “an incumbent protection machine [in which] the laws are written by lobbyists” (this antilobbyist sentiment has somehow never prevented Google from rapidly expanding its own lobbying operation in Washington, DC). 

So many geeks are impatient with politics because they think that it involves nothing but talk. For them, deliberation is the cancer in the body of modern democracy, and it would be so much more productive to replace talk with action, with doing things, for all this chatter is of little to no use. After all, no great apps have ever come out of a committee meeting. So Beth Noveck, the open-government advocate and author of Wiki Government, tells us— in the kind of language beloved by administrators— that “it is overdue to rethink the legitimacy of attenuated participation in a small number of representative institutions.” Got it? [Morozov, op cit, p. 133.]
Critics have maligned the plan as a naked attempt by Draper and his elitist Silicon Valley buddies to cut the riffraff moochers out of their tax base (the new Silicon Valley state would have the highest per capita income in the nation), while sending 10 new U.S. senators — as many as eight of them Republicans — to Washington. Some have called it “radical-right libertarianism.” 
- 6 Californias? How about 7 Rhode Islands?

More to come...

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