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Thursday, November 24, 2016

What might Artificial Intelligence bring to humanity?

You really owe it to yourself to listen carefully to this entire 76 minute podcast.
"In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with computer scientist Stuart Russell about the challenge of building artificial intelligence that is compatible with human well-being."

I've posted here on "AI vs IA" topics before. At about 61 minutes in this podcast interview they discuss issues reminding me of the postcapitalism "Four Futures" speculative alternative scenarios articulated by Peter Frase. BTW: this excellent essay has finally been released in expanded book format.

"Peter Frase argues that increasing automation and a growing scarcity of resources, thanks to climate change, will bring it all tumbling down. In Four Futures, Frase imagines how this post-capitalist world might look, deploying the tools of both social science and speculative fiction to explore what communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism might actually entail.

Could the current rise of real-life robocops usher in a world that resembles Ender’s Game? And sure, communism will bring an end to material scarcities and inequalities of wealth—but there’s no guarantee that social hierarchies, governed by an economy of “likes,” wouldn’t rise to take their place. A whirlwind tour through science fiction, social theory and the new technologies already shaping our lives, Four Futures is a balance sheet of the socialisms we may reach if a resurgent Left is successful, and the barbarisms we may be consigned to if those movements fail."
Again, listen to Sam's podcast carefully, and at least read the online Peter Frase essay. In the Health IT world these days we're all infatuated with stuff like Watson "curing cancer" and other AI/IA "personalized medicine" proffers. But, the very real and very serious sociological issues pertaining to AI extend far beyond. The Harris-Russell podcast interview above certainly touched on every concern that has crossed my mind as I've thought about AI/IA, and then some.

Below, Sam Harris doing a TED Talk on AI.


UPDATE: I finished the "Four Futures" book. It is excellent. A fairly quick read. Peter Frase's concluding thoughts:
The transition to a world of abundance and equality, then, is likely to be a tumultuous and conflict-ridden one. If the rich won’t relinquish their privileges voluntarily, they would have to be expropriated by force, and such struggles can have dire consequences for both sides. For as Friedrich Nietzsche said in a famous aphorism, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster … for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Or as the Communist poet Bertolt Brecht wrote in “To Posterity,” a revolution against a brutal system could itself brutalize those who participated in it.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we

Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
Or as Mao put it in his characteristic blunt style, “a revolution is not a dinner party."

In other words, even the most successful and justified revolution has losers and victims. In a 1962 letter to the economist Paul Baran, the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse remarks that “nobody ever gave a damn about the victims of history.” The remark was directed at the hypocrisy of liberals who were eager to moralize about the victims of Soviet Communism but were silent about the massive human cost of capitalism. It’s a harsh, perhaps a cruel judgment, and Marcuse himself suggests the need to move beyond it. But it provides an important perspective on the exercise I’ve undertaken here, by allowing us to see that society’s four futures don’t fit into neat moral boxes.

That is one danger, that we underestimate the difficulty of the path we must traverse, or that we allow the beauty of our endpoint to license unlimited brutality along the way. But another possibility is that, at journey’s end, we forget how arduous the journey was and who we left behind. Walter Benjamin, in his essay “On the Concept of History,” talks about the way that historical accounts necessarily tend to empathize with the victors, who are generally the ones who get to write the history. “Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time.” But we can also say that even in a society without clear rulers, history will tend to empathize with the survivors; they are, after all, literally the only ones around to write it. Let’s revisit, on that note, the residents of our first, communist future. Perhaps they’re not at the end of the capitalist road to communism after all, but of a much longer and darker journey through the horrors of exterminism.

Remember exterminism’s central problematic: abundance and freedom from work are possible for a minority, but material limits make it impossible to extend that same way of life to everyone. At the same time, automation has rendered masses of workers superfluous. The result is a society of surveillance, repression, and incarceration, always threatening to tip over into one of outright genocide.

But suppose we stare into that abyss? What’s left when the “excess” bodies have been disposed of and the rich are finally left alone with their robots and their walled compounds? The combat drones and robot executioners could be decommissioned, the apparatus of surveillance gradually dismantled, and the remaining population could evolve past its brutal and dehumanizing war morality and settle into a life of equality and abundance— in other words, into communism.
As a descendant of Europeans in the United States, I have an idea of what that might be like. After all, I’m the beneficiary of a genocide.

My society was founded on the systematic extermination of the North American continent’s original inhabitants. Today, the surviving descendants of those earliest Americans are sufficiently impoverished, small in number, and geographically isolated that most Americans can easily ignore them as they go about their lives. Occasionally the survivors force themselves onto our attention. But mostly, while we may lament the brutality of our ancestors, we don’t contemplate giving up our prosperous lives or our land. Just as Marcuse said, nobody ever gave a damn about the victims of history.

Zooming out a bit farther, then, the point is that we don’t necessarily pick one of the four futures: we could get them all, and there are paths that lead from each one to all of the others. 

We have seen how exterminism becomes communism. Communism, in turn, is always subject to counterrevolution, if someone can find a way to reintroduce artificial scarcity and create a new rentist elite. Socialism is subject to this pressure even more severely, since the greater level of shared material hardship increases the impetus for some group to set itself up as the privileged elite and turn the system into an exterminist one. 

But short of a civilizational collapse so complete that it cuts us off from our accumulated knowledge and plunges us into a new dark ages, it’s hard to see a road that leads back to industrial capitalism as we have known it. That is the other important point of this book. We can’t go back to the past, and we can’t even hold on to what we have now. Something new is coming— and indeed, in some way, all four futures are already here, “unevenly distributed,” in William Gibson’s phrase. It’s up to us to build the collective power to fight for the futures we want.

Frase, Peter (2016-10-11). Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Jacobin) (Kindle Locations 1886-1930). Verso Books. Kindle Edition. 
 Again, you can begin with his antecedent Jacobin online essay, but the book puts some very nice additional meat on the bones. Some good discourse on the implications of AI/Robotics included.

My quickie Photoshop matrix rendering.

With the November 2016 election of the belligerent, vainglorious Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency, I have to be concerned that we might be soon teetering more toward a Quadrant IV. I don't think there can be much doubt that the U.S. socioeconomic culture is principally in a Quadrant II mode these days. Whether we slip toward a fully predatory tooth and claw Quadrant IV remains to be seen.

NOTE: also highly recommended apropos of this vein of thought, Paul Mason's bracing book Postcapitalism.

Cited it here, back in April.


apropos of employment projections, just in in my inbox, from The New Yorker:
...Otto, a Bay Area startup that was recently acquired by Uber, wants to automate trucking—and recently wrapped up a hundred-and-twenty-mile driverless delivery of fifty thousand cans of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. From a technological standpoint it was a jaw-dropping achievement, accompanied by predictions of improved highway safety. From the point of view of a truck driver with a mortgage and a kid in college, it was a devastating “oh, shit” moment. That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk. Truck driving is one of the few decent-paying jobs that doesn’t require a college diploma. Eliminating the need for truck drivers doesn’t just affect those millions of drivers; it has a ripple effect on ancillary services like gas stations, motels, and retail outlets; an entire economic ecosystem could break down.

Whether self-driving cars and trucks, drones, privatization of civic services like transportation, or dynamic pricing, all these developments embrace automation and efficiency, and abhor friction and waste. As Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management told MIT Technology Review, “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.” It is, he said, “the great paradox of our era.”...



The utterly dystopian 1990 sci-fi flick "Hardware." One of my all-time favorites.

More to come...

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