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Monday, February 16, 2015

Fear of Intelligence

I sat on a robotics panel last week that discussed the future of robotics. The audiences' questions exposed the fact that at least some people are really scared of robotics and Artificial Intelligence.  It seems that some of this renewed fear is due to the philosopher Nick Bostrom,who recently authored Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Bostrom specializes in "existential risk" and I have a hunch that just like everything tends to look like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer, it's convenient for everything to look catastrophically dangerous when your specialty is existential risk. It certainly increases your likelihood of funding!

The basis for the fear is the advancement of machine intelligence coupled with a technology singularity. The following is a description of levels of machine intelligence:
AI Caliber 1) Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI): Sometimes referred to as Weak AI, Artificial Narrow Intelligence is AI that specializes in one area. There’s AI that can beat the world chess champion in chess, but that’s the only thing it does. Ask it to figure out a better way to store data on a hard drive, and it’ll look at you blankly. 
AI Caliber 2) Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): Sometimes referred to as Strong AI, or Human-Level AI, Artificial General Intelligence refers to a computer that is as smart as a human across the board—a machine that can perform any intellectual task that a human being can. Creating AGI is a much harder task than creating ANI, and we’re yet to do it. Professor Linda Gottfredson describes intelligence as “a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.” AGI would be able to do all of those things as easily as you can.
AI Caliber 3) Artificial Superintelligence (ASI): Oxford philosopher and leading AI thinker Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.” Artificial Superintelligence ranges from a computer that’s just a little smarter than a human to one that’s trillions of times smarter—across the board. ASI is the reason the topic of AI is such a spicy meatball and why the words immortality and extinction will both appear in these posts multiple times.
The Technological Singularity is described as follows:
The technological singularity is the hypothesis that accelerating progress in technologies will cause a runaway effect wherein artificial intelligence will exceed human intellectual capacity and control, thus radically changing civilization in an event called the singularity.[1] Because the capabilities of such an intelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is an occurrence beyond which events may become unpredictable, unfavorable, or even unfathomable.[2]
The concepts of varying levels of artificial intelligence and the singularity have been around for a long time, starting well before existential risk philosopher Bostrom was even born. I've had the opportunity to contemplate these concepts for decades while I've worked in technology, robotics and artificial intelligence, and I think these concepts are egregiously fundamentally flawed. They make for a good science fiction story and not much else. I was glad to find I'm not alone in this:
If this sounds absurd to you, you’re not alone. Critics such as the robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks say that people who fear a runaway AI misunderstand what computers are doing when we say they’re thinking or getting smart. From this perspective, the putative super intelligence Bostrom describes is far in the future and perhaps impossible.
While it would take volumes of highly detailed technical information for me to present a fully convincing argument, for now, I'd like to leave y'all with a couple of thoughts.

Consider the following words: computation, intelligence, experience, information/knowledge, decision, action.

  • Even infinite computation (which is kind of the basis of the singularity) doesn't inherently translate to infinite intelligence or even any real or general intelligence.
  • In a vacuum, even infinite intelligence is useless.
  • The frontiers of information/knowledge can't be very much expanded with intelligence alone - experience (hypotheses, experiment, scientific method, etc.) is required no matter how intelligent something or someone is, and experience takes time, a long, long, long time as any researcher, developer or thinker (apparently other than an existential risk philospher) knows.
  • No matter how intelligent something is, it can't make decisions to take catastrophic actions based on currently unknown knowledge until it takes the time to gain experience to push the state of knowledge. The actions required to gain that experience will be observable and easily stoppable if necessary.
On the other hand, consider a nuclear tipped cruise missile. It can perform some computation and can maneuver in its very narrowly intelligent way, has none of its own experience (it's a one shot deal after all), has some information/knowledge in terms of maps, someone else made the decision to launch, but it's action is quite devastating. 10,000 of them could destroy most of the advanced life on earth. When I was a child, we had air raid drills in school because we thought some crazy soviet might do exactly that.

The point being that we're already more than intelligent enough to destroy ourselves via nukes, pathogens, etc.  The risk from super intelligent machines pales in comparison. Consider:

  • About 1% of humans are sociopaths and that translates to about 70,000,000 people worldwide. Given standard bell curves, some of those are likely to have IQs in the neighborhood of 200. If intelligence alone is a thing to fear, then it's too late unless we're willing to kill all the smart people, and I strongly suggest we don't do that.
  • Humans, using tools (including computers), have and will continue to have access to all the tools of annihilation that a super intelligence would have and some of us are downright evil already.
Part of the runaway AI fear is based on the concept of a single Artificial Super Intelligence emerging in a winner-takes-all scenario, where it redesigns and rebuilds itself so fast that nothing else will ever be able to out think it and disable it so we'd better hope it's beneficent.

But consider the saying: "Jack-of-all-trades, master of none." My view is that narrow, focused intelligence, sort of the idiot-savants of the AI world, in their narrow area, will outperform a super general intelligence, and enable us to use them as tools to keep super general intelligences, if any are ever created, in check.

There is no commercial reason to ever create a general intelligence. For example, at my company, our vision systems will soon surpass human vision systems, and watching our Robotic Pruner prune, it looks quite purposeful and intelligent, but there's no real intelligence there. Siri's "descendants" will far surpass the Turing Test in a couple of decades (or sooner or later), and will appear extremely intelligent, but will be just a very, very good verbal analysis and response AI and will have no general intelligence of any kind. C-3PO in Star Wars appears intelligent and we will be able to create a C-3PO eventually, but the real world version will have no real, general intelligence.

The illusion that many of us seem to have fallen for is that many behaviors that we associate with our own anthropomorphic intelligence are only possible if we create an entity with intelligence that somehow operates like a human's, or is orthogonal to the way human intelligence operates, but is similarly global and all encompassing. I strongly believe that view is mistaken and that it is just an illusion. Seemingly intelligent looking behaviors will emerge from massive computation and information interacting with a non-trivial environment, but it won't be any sort of conscious or real intelligence. And because of that, it won't be dangerous.

Human intelligence requires a human body with a circulatory system pumping hormones and responding to rhythms and movements and events and sensory input. I always chuckle when someone suggests encoding someone's brain (neurons & connections) into a computer. You know what you get if you do that? The person in a coma, which doesn't seem particularly useful to me.

I think intelligence, especially within this particular topic, is wildly overrated, and there's nothing to fear.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


The use of labels is standard fare in many political discussions.  Such simplifications can be helpful but they can also obscure or confuse things when the labels miss the mark or their use changes over time.  I was recently reading an article at PJMedia and there was a link to an article with the very cute title: The Electric Tea Party Acid Test in which the author offered his own construct:

A necessary precursor to accepting any new worldview is to first jettison the previous worldview. So let’s start at the beginning: for the duration of this essay at least, pretend you’ve never heard of the left/right spectrum. Stick with me on this. As an intellectual exercise, just toss the notions of “left-wing” and “right-wing” out the window and begin your political education anew. Because it is this unnecessary (and now inaccurate) dichotomy between “left” and “right” which prevents most people from clearly conceptualizing the way that political thought is actually arrayed.

OK — is your mind clear? Now look at my newly conceptualized spectrum which schematizes political philosophies in a much more sensible and incisive way:

Later in the article Zombie continues:
People who adhere to the outdated and overly simplistic left/right divide may have trouble grokking this new way of looking at society. Newsweek, for example, recently claimed that the Tea Party has an “anarchist streak.” I find this interesting, because the Newsweek writer understood that both Tea Partiers and anarchists are on the same end of the “Government Control” axis, but couldn’t grasp that, viewed from a different orientation, Tea Partiers are at the opposite end of the “Human Nature” axis from anarchists, who want to construct an (impossible) law-free utopia based on the assumption that people can change and control themselves in the absence of any authority whatsoever.

This brings up a good point: Scroll back up to the chart and think of it in terms of “halves.” Leftists want to highlight the fact the both Tea Partiers and Nazis are in the same “half” of the chart — the bottom half, as it is currently oriented (although of course the way I rotated the chart was completely random — there is no inherent meaning in the up-down-left-right placement, and I just as easily could have designed it to be 90 degrees or 180 degrees a different way). Of course, as mentioned above, the crucial difference is that Nazis and other totalitarians want to use government to enforce their idea of the natural order of things, whereas Tea Partiers have the exact opposite urge — to have no government enforcement at all, and to let the natural order of things play itself out — naturally.

On the other hand, The Tea Partiers (and I) want you to notice that all the “bad” ideologies, including Nazism and communism, also share space on the same half of the chart, in this case the “more government control” half.

So, the chart is viewpoint-neutral; each person can express their pre-existing political bias by pointing out how this-or-that political enemy is at least in the same half as some identifiably bad ideology. It just all depends on what angle from which you choose to view the spectrum.

There are things to quibble over and different points of emphasis someone else might bring to bare, but overall a pretty interesting take on the matter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

War of the Sexes: Part 10 - Karma?

In The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Hanna Rosin created a metaphor for modern men and women:
Throughout my reporting, a certain imaginary comic book duo kept presenting themselves to me: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Plastic Woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility. She has gone from barely working at all to working only until she got married to working while married and then working with children, even babies. If a space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. If she is no longer required by ladylike standards to restrain her temper, she starts a brawl at the bar. If she can get away with staying unmarried and living as she pleases deep into her thirties, she will do that too. And if the era calls for sexual adventurousness, she is game. [...]
Cardboard Man, meanwhile, hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same. There are many professions that have gone from all- male to female, and almost none that have gone the other way. For most of the century men derived their sense of manliness from their work, or their role as head of the family. A 'coalminer' or 'rigger' used to be a complete identity, connecting a man to a long lineage of men.
Clearly the female gender is far superior with its "superhuman" flexibility and success while "centuries" can go by with men mired in the same muck. But wait! In the uncountable centuries prior to the last couple, where was that vaunted flexibility and success of the female gender? It seems like women were rather stuck in the mud with the same "ambitions" century after century as well, just like men.

Ah, but I'm sure it was the oppression of the evil patriarchy that kept "Plastic Woman" from launching into her meteoric rise all these millennia. After all, it's always the patriarchy's fault. Of course, then we have to wonder why the patriarchy suddenly became incompetent at oppression in the last couple of centuries.

To play a little with a famous saying, god created man and woman, but Sam Colt made them equal. When the armaments of an age are the broadsword and longbow, which require a lot of strength to use effectively, wielding weapons of war and defense is best left to the physically stronger sex. With the development of hand guns and rifles, a woman wielding a weapon became every bit as dangerous as most men. I don't think it's a coincidence that Plastic Woman seems to have emerged with the development of modern, light, and powerful weapons. The cost of oppression was suddenly much higher and the need for male defenders swinging broadswords was suddenly much lower.

Weapons technology was one technology behind the emergence of Plastic Woman, but virtually every technology has moved all aspects of life towards matching women's nature. I realize that only an evil patriarch like myself would even dare to suggest that women and men have different natures, but I'm the evil author of this post, so deal with it.

Natural attributes of men, such as physical strength and willingness to engage in physical and even mortal danger, have been rendered nearly useless by inventing machines and refining them to tame their potentially violent and dangerous or deadly force. Though there is debate on the issue, my opinion is that one would have to be deaf to not know that women are more verbal than men (I'm using up all of my words for at least three days just to write this post), and with the increasing importance of information and complex networks in all aspects of society, verbal competency has become ever more important, playing to women's strengths. Being naturally nurturing in nursing and other jobs in the growing service sector also moves the world towards women.

Therefore, it's not that Plastic Woman necessarily has superhuman flexibility, but rather the world was dumped in her lap and she could hardly help but flourish. On the other hand, Cardboard Man has pretty much had everything taken away from the sweet spot of his abilities. From this perspective, women haven't been flexible at all and while men may not have flexed enough to keep up with the stunningly rapid change of the last two centuries, they have flexed quite a bit. Other than a few things like female prostitution, there really aren't any jobs a woman can do that a man can't, and men have made at least some inroads into most existing careers.

Ms. Rosin can continue to gloat for her gender for a while longer. But what goes around comes back around eventually, and technology, which has so far destroyed mostly only men's livelihoods while creating new opportunities for women, is relentlessly marching towards eliminating women's work as well. Within decades, computers will learn to speak, and not just the rote responses you get on the phone or from Apple's Siri. They will learn to understand what they hear and respond with knowledgeable and seemingly empathetic responses. My estimate is that this strong AI will start to be well developed within two decades.

Along the way, computers, coupled with sensors and actuators, will become better doctors, nurses and therapists than humans; better administrators; better at customer service; and better at sales. They may eventually even be better at prostitution, though robot sex may not be considered prostitution, I suppose. At that point we'll get to see if Plastic Woman is really fantastically flexible or if women also are ejected unceremoniously from the workforce and end up sitting around watching soap operas all day.

Then Ms. Rosin can write a new book with the title "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence." Oh wait! Somebody already wrote that book.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

War of the Sexes: Part 9 - War in the Workplace

One of the major battles in the War of the Sexes is in the work place. Within this realm, I don't think anything draws the ire of feminists more than the following:
On average, full-time working women earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.
It's seen as inherently unfair, certain to be a symptom of rampant discrimination and oppression by the patriarchy. After all, given that women are equal to men in every way (except, of course, where they're better), how could anything but nefarious motives possibly explain why women are paid so much less?

To those of us, such as myself, who are deemed to be part of the evil patriarchy, it looks like there are a large number of reasons for the salary discrepancy, and most of them aren't nefarious at all. Indeed, according to a US Department of Labor report, pretty much the entire wage gap can be easily explained:
There are observable differences in the attributes of men and women that account for most of the wage gap. Statistical analysis that includes those variables has produced results that collectively account for between 65.1% and 76.4% of a raw gender wage gap of 20.4%, and thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8% and 7.1%. These variables include:
  • A greater percentage of women than men tend to work part-time. Part-time work tends to pay less than full-time work.
  • A greater percentage of women than men tend to leave the labor force for child birth, child care and elder care. Some of the wage gap is explained by the percentage of women who were not in the labor force during previous years, the age of women, and the number of children in the home.
  • Women, especially working mothers, tend to value “family friendly” workplace policies more than men. Some of the wage gap is explained by industry and occupation, particularly, the percentage of women who work in the industry and occupation.
Research also suggests that differences not incorporated into the model due to data limitations may account for part of the remaining gap. Specifically, CONSAD’s model and much of the literature, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics Highlights of Women’s Earnings, focus on wages rather than total compensation. Research indicates that women may value non-wage benefits more than men do, and as a result prefer to take a greater portion of their compensation in the form of health insurance and other fringe benefits.
This report doesn't even take into account minor little details like fatalities as shown by the following depiction:

Nor does it take into account things like lawsuits. Women bring far more lawsuits against employers than men and some of the awards are astounding. For example, one jury awarded $168 million for a sexual harassment lawsuit. While some of the lawsuits may well be justified (though more than half of all sexual harassment lawsuits are dismissed as No Reasonable Cause), it makes women as a whole more expensive than men for the same job.

Women, still not happy with their compensation relative to men, are turning to the class action suit:
This month, Merck  was hit with a $100 million sex discrimination suit alleging that the company engaged in systemic gender bias. The complaint could be used in a law school as a way to teach virtually every gender-based claim that could possibly be brought against an employer.
The case includes many allegations of discrimination against female and pregnant employees, and staffers who chose to take family-medical leave. The suit also claims that Merck engaged in discriminatory promotional and payroll practices. And the case also includes less tangible “Boys’ Club” allegations, which have become increasingly common in gender bias cases. 
But Merck is far from alone. In a 2011 paper, Holland & Hart’s John M. Husband and Bradford J. Williams list private employers who have settled class actions in the tens — or even hundreds — of millions of dollars, noting that it “reads like a who’s who of Fortune 500 companies.” Many, but not all, involve sex discrimination. 
Class actions are not going away. First, there are plaintiffs’ lawyers who focus on class actions. Let’s face it: That’s where the money is for many lawyers. Indeed, there are some plaintiffs’ lawyers who specifically focus on Fortune 500 companies. 
Second, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in its strategic plan, has prioritized eliminating systemic barriers in hiring. This priority will unavoidably focus on the way employers give out promotions too. 
It is highly likely that the EEOC’s approach will involve more and more class action suits because companywide or systemic issues almost always involve a group of employees. It is probably no accident that the most recent EEOC commissioner appointee is an attorney with significant class action expertise.
This battle in the War of the Sexes is being taken to the courts. It has entered the realm of who can get what from whom and who can control whom. Pretty much like the purpose of any other war. Why do I claim that this is the purpose rather than assume the courts are needed to address some sort of inequity? Consider the following thought experiment.

Let's ignore all the analysis and say that women really are paid less than their value. If that's the case, I would think that women would start lots of companies and hire all these underpaid women because if they did, they'd have a huge advantage in labor costs relative to existing companies, and they would be wildly profitable and dominate the markets in short order. There are even government programs to help encourage this.

Women don't do that. Instead, they turn to the class action trial attorneys. Therefore, I can only conclude that this battle is more about getting something not really deserved rather than actually working towards a positive solution.

With the help of the trial lawyers, my bet is that women will have a decisive victory in the battle of the workplace as well before too long. As they drive more and more men out of work, they may find that victory to be somewhat hollow.

Monday, February 09, 2015

If It Doesn't Kill You, Is It a Bad Decision?

I stumbled upon an excerpt today that I think nearly perfectly describes the contempt many conservatives assign to the progressive experiment (liberal disease):
It should be apparent by now that these social policies [of modern liberalism] and the passions that drive them contradict all that is rational in human relating, and they are therefore irrational in themselves. But the faulty conceptions that lie behind these passions cannot be viewed as mere cognitive slippage. 
The degree of modern liberalism’s irrationality far exceeds any misunderstanding that can be attributed to faulty fact gathering or logical error. 
Indeed, under careful scrutiny, liberalism’s distortions of the normal ability to reason can only be understood as the product of psychopathology. 
So extravagant are the patterns of thinking, emoting, behaving and relating that characterize the liberal mind that its relentless protests and demands become understandable only as disorders of the psyche. The modern liberal mind, its distorted perceptions and its destructive agenda are the product of disturbed personalities.
Personally, I don't think it's a problem of liberalism, but rather it's part of the human condition. All of us, conservatives, libertarians, progressives, communists, etc., are so divorced from reality that we can all have "extravagant" "patterns of thinking, emoting, behaving and relating" that have little or nothing to do with reality. Almost no matter what we do, we'll all survive, at least into our reproductive years. We'll all have enough food, clothing, and shelter to keep on breathing, even the poorest among us.

A significant part of the reason for that is that neither conservatives, libertarians, progressives, communists, etc. are going to let children starve or otherwise die from destitution. None of us can stand to watch children die, especially if those children are in our own communities. That aversion is part of being human. But that means that all children, even very poor ones, even ones that come from a long line of folks whose decisions we disagree with, such as those whose actions result in single motherhood which results in poverty most of the time, will reach adulthood and will likely have children of their own, who also will be kept alive, enabling the cycle of poverty to continue.

Is anyone making an objectively bad decision? I claim no. For those that support safety nets (which is nearly everybody, really), the money is more than worth it to not have children starving. For those making decisions that will likely result in children being raised in poverty, they're propagating their DNA, which seems like an objectively good decision as well.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

A False Flag Operation?

As I read the Master and Commander series, I gained an appreciation for what "false flag" means: an action carried out under an identity other than that proclaimed and sometimes surreptitiously opposite to that of the claimed identity.

Just so with A New Way to Talk About Poverty in New York.

Slate is a bastion of mostly — but to be fair, not always — unreflective progressivism (which, unfortunately, continues to make the brand-sullying error of publishing Amanda Marcotte).

The point of the piece was to photographically document living in poverty and, ostensibly, provide an opportunity for empathy and sympathy in the viewer. And not black poverty, which is such a lightning rod, but rather white poverty in upstate New York.

To progressives, poverty is an indictment of society and the system and capitalism. Oh, and Reagan.

In contrast, for non-progressives, poverty is often the consequence of self-defeating choices, which should not be subsidized because the inevitable consequence is getting more of what you pay for.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this photo essay serves as a compelling indictment of right-wing capitalism. Here is the author's précis:

Brenda Ann Kenneally takes photographs, but to call her a photographer isn’t quite accurate. She prefers the term “digital folk artist,” and when you hear how she interacts with her subjects—families living below the poverty line in Troy, New York—and tells their stories ...

Kenneally lived in Troy, a city 140 miles north of Manhattan, and surrounding cities on and off as a child and teen. She left for good at the age of 17 after a young pregnancy and abortion, problems with drugs and the legal system, and time living in group homes. After getting sober, she studied photojournalism and sociology at the University of Miami. After graduation, she moved to Brooklyn and began photographing her neighbors’ struggles with poverty and drugs.

No doubt, part of this story is about the consequences of economic change: no one wants to live without it, but, particularly for some, it can be hard to live with, too.

... today, Troy is a city with serious social issues: According to a report released by the New York State Community Action Association in 2010, 21.4 percent of residents in Troy live in poverty, and about 70 percent of poor families are headed by a single mother. “I have dedicated my life to exploring the how and why of class inequity in America. I am concerned with the internalized social messages that will live on for generations after our economic and social policies catch up with the reality of living on the bottom rung of America’s upwardly mobile society,” Kenneally said in a statement about her work. “My project explores the way that money is but a symptom of self-worth and a means by which humans separate from each other. Poverty is an emotional (rather than simply) physical state with layers of marginalization that cements those who live under them into place.”

The rote boilerplate and passive voice is the false flag; the images themselves the operation. It is surprising Slate got taken in so easily. After all, it is clear enough that Kenneally's success came only after stopping make bad choices; or, for you optimists out there, started making good ones.

In this thread are some images that didn't make the cut at Slate — scroll down.