Saturday, June 23, 2018

Reshaping Humanity - and Earth

Will signs of human civilization – our unguided plunge into an “Anthropocene era” – be visible and detectable to others millions of years from now, after all surface relics are ground to dust?  This article by Adam Frank - from The Atlantic - explores possible signs, like a layer rich in nitrogen from all the fertilizers we use (I think phosphorus may be a stronger indicator.)  

“Likewise our relentless hunger for the rare-Earth elements used in electronic gizmos. Far more of these atoms are now wandering around the planet’s surface because of us than would otherwise be the case. They might also show up in future sediments, too. Even our creation, and use, of synthetic steroids has now become so pervasive that it too may be detectable in geologic strata 10 million years from now. And then there’s all that plastic. Studies have shown increasing amounts of plastic “marine litter” are being deposited on the seafloor everywhere from coastal areas to deep basins and even in the Arctic,” writes Adam Frank, astrophysicist, NPR blogger and author of the soon-to-be released book - Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth.

Frank continues: “When we burn fossil fuels, we’re releasing carbon back into the atmosphere that was once part of living tissues. This ancient carbon is depleted in one of that element’s three naturally occurring varieties, or isotopes. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more the balance of these carbon isotopes shifts.” 

I might add that there could be signs of our recent fiddling with nuclear fission.  And our cities would leave anomalous ore deposits of patterned and interlaced metals.

Frank's article goes on to discuss how fifty-six million years ago, Earth passed through the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During the PETM, the planet’s average temperature climbed as high as 15 degrees Fahrenheit above what we experience today, and some ways it resembles what may happen if climate change spins out of control. But it happened slower, then, not at the extreme rate we are driving this process. So no, that likely wasn’t a civilization.  

Many of you know I've pondered this notion fairly deeply, as the most-used pundit on the popular History Channel show: "Life After People."

One wonders if those who follow us will use that word, to describe us. “Civilization.”

== Reshaping Humanity ==

Are we reaching an important turning point?

A recently released book on AI, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers and the Future of Humanity by Gigaom publisher Byron Reese, delves deeply into the important questions rising from progress in Artificial Intelligence, automation, the end of work and - just what makes us human. Reese makes a case that technological advances have reshaped humanity just three times in history: 

- 100,000 years ago, we harnessed fire, which led to language.

- 10,000 years ago, we developed agriculture, which led to cities and warfare.

- 5,000 years ago, we invented the wheel and writing, which lead to the nation state. And that we are now on the doorstep of a fourth change brought about by two technologies: AI and robotics.

I’d quibble with this timeline, which calls all of those inventive leaps more recent than they actually were. Indeed, in Existence I posit that a huge revolution of thinking must have taken place approximately 40,000 years ago when, within the span of a few centuries, our ancestors vastly expanded their toolkit and made art and religion major facets of their lives. And what’s the Industrial Revolution, exploiting fossil fuels to exponentiate what we could do? Indeed, I can think of at least a dozen accelerations that happened in narrow windows of time, that were probably the bio-human equivalent of sudden operating system upgrades.

We are doing one right now... and old style humans are so terrified that they're clawing at the rest of us, ready to tear it all down, rather than face the inevitability of change.

On Medium, you can read the preface to The Fourth Age, a worthy contributor to the biggest topic /discussion of our era.

Oh, while we're at it.... This article from Big Think lists ten books that explore the future tech of Machine Learning, Robots and Artificial Intelligence -- including Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark and Our Final Invention by James Barrat.


 == No, scientists weren’t talking “ice age” ==

One of the insidious lies told often about climate change is that“scientists believed back in the 70s that we were heading to an ice age.”  Never mind that surveys have shown that cooling theories constituted a minuscule minority of climate papers, since World War II and they were swiftly debunked. If you offer statistics, confederates blank out.

So let’s go to anecdotes, their prime food.  Like the 1970s film “Soylent Green,” immensely popular, depicting greenhouse broiling in a near future Earth,

Also in the 1970's Steven Spielberg directed a short movie predicated on global warming and air pollution, Los Angeles 2017. It was an episode of the TV show Name of the Game.

One of you, (Jerry E.) cited a science series that became a film shown in schools from Sputnik to the 1980s. The episode of Bell Science program The Unchained Goddess,which was shown on CBS television on February 12, 1958 discussed human-caused global warming. “I remember watching it on television, and I also remember it being shown in my "red state" rural school several times when I was a young child. At that time, Bell Science Series shows were a very big deal to any kid interested in science.” The most relevant two minutes of the program is on YouTube.

And yes, warming was the trend most-widely credited by a vast majority of the scientific community even back then, without satellite data. This is what we are reduced to. The all-out war on every fact profession, from science to the FBI, from journalism to military officers, has reached the point where we cannot deal with our mad uncles with evidence and statistics, only anecdotes.

Finally....

It’s long been debated whether early humans were responsible for the extinctions of large mammals, all over the globe. Apparently, new data is closing in on confirming the notion. It appears that humans drove North American ground sloths to extinction - along with most large mammals - around 11,000 years ago. More evidence arose in a startling human footprint – apparently running, that was pressed into mud very soon after a sloth pressed his. There are few possibilities other than the drama of a hunter chasing prey.  Wow.


David Christian's Origin Story: A Big History of Everything offers a comprehensive timeline of the universe, from the big bang to the evolution of life on earth....asking what the future may hold. Christian cofounded the Big History Project with Bill Gates.

Another book that delves into the history (and possible future) of life on earth: A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink. 

Researchers studying a Bajau community of traditional deep-divers in Sulawesi, Indonesia have found that these families have enlarged spleens that help them handle oxygen better.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Optimists aren't the ingrate betrayers.


I just finished 9 weeks of relentless speechifying around the globe, from the Arctic and Russia to South China to LA, to a dozen events in DC. More than 25 talks! Culminating in last week’s commencement at UC Santa Cruz (Crown College.) Time to get back to writing.

== But first…

Two minutes. Watch this, you Americans. Two minutes for your country. (And you others, learn from this!) As for those cardboard election mailers you were getting, and will get again, come November? Do what you should do with anything received over the web. Start by looking at the return address. (The "paid-by" is usually some made-up shill phrase.) 

There's lots more we need to do, to shred the veil of lies. But that should only be a start. 

It truly is simple. One party wants a return to the campaign accountability laws that worked mostly-well in the past. Ronald Reagan was elected under them, by the way. Vote for that party and against the one that has adopted wholesale cheating supported with acts of war by foreign powers.

Better yet, join Lawrence Lessig's campaign to bring all the funding into the light.

== Is there any protection from the inevitable meltdown? ==

With Paul Ryan announcing his retirement (to spend time with family), and the last professionals leaving a White House in full melt-down mode, talk of a bill to protect Robert Mueller is going nowhere, because GOP pols are desperately afraid of Rupert Murdoch. And yes, just in time, the Murdochs are getting a huge, cash war chest of $70 Billion they can spend on perverting the Enlightenment. Thanks a bunch, Mickey.

What happens when a toddler with presidential powers enters full panic mode? What are the skilled and grownup men and women of the officer corps, the civil service, and adults both in and out of the "deep state" to do, when faced with a life-or-death choice between their duty to all of us, and the chain-of-command?

There is a solution! It can pass, quietly, in a three sentence resolution from both houses. Far less daunting or traumatic than impeachment, it would give our military officers and others a place to turn, if they are ever given "spasm" commands.

Three sentences -- that could be slipped into almost any bill -- that would quietly let us sleep at night. Give it another look... and pass it along to anyone you know who might know someone who knows someone...

== We haven’t lost… yet ==

Long ago I learned something from my friend Ray Bradbury... that people want to be optiminstic, but they are worried about looking naïve or foolish. Still, they can be chided into seeing the advantages of a positive attitude.

Hated on by both the far-left and the entire-right, Steven Pinker dares to beat the drum of optimism in an era of stylish cynicism and self-indulgent gloom. He and I choose different examples, and reasons to feel guarded hope. But first, ponder this Pinker excerpt:

"Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

"Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

"Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440."

Pinker has mountains of such examples, enraging those who think that only hand-wringing guilt trips can possibly motivate people to take action to improve things further.

Fools. It's confidence that spurs action, not despair! See his new book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

Along these lines, famed statistician Hans Rosling's final book (published posthumously): Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, explores the upward trend of human progress, which Bill Gates calls "One of the most important books I've ever read."  As a matter of fact, Bill Gates is giving a free ebook of Factfulness to all 2018 college graduates.

Have things improved? Enjoy this vivid video of Hans Rosling: 200 Countries, 200 years in 4 Minutes -- joyfully detailing statistical progress across the globe, over decades.

Here's an example or two of my own.

If you were around in 1985, when Star Trek IV came out, would you have bet that in 2018 all species of whale would still be around, and in greater numbers than ever? 

Oh, but can they survive long with idiots denying that the oceans are going acid? It's not to late to stop the bad trend and save the good. It's that mix of confidence-building accomplishment with urgency that might empower us to save the world.

Seriously, any of you who would trade places with any generation of our ancestors need to get a grip. Try actually, actually confronting the facts of feudal oppression, inquisitions, and the plain reality that nearly all of those forebears had experienced the smoke, blood, screams and terror of a burning city or village, not once in their lives, but several times. 

Spoiled rotten, do not add ingratitude to your list of faults. Confront your place on the slope of progress! Gaze briefly (with Pinker's help) across how far we've come... then dig in your feet and get to work climbing further.

== Infopacalypse? ==

Which brings us to another big perspective... and what it says about our disruptive era.
A member of our comment community corrected my impression that the American democracy has lasted longer than the Athenian:  

Athenian democracy lasted from around 594 BC when Solon instituted the Ecclesia to when Phillip II conquered Athens in 338 BC, a total of 256 years. It started in revolution because a very small elite had turned all the others into debt slaves. Solon made the very deep reforms thereby avoiding civil war. It lasted for through many existential crises but was eventually brought down by hubris brought about by empire, a lost war and afterwards a general slump into insignificance all in 256 years. Our democracy started in 1788 so if democracies have a lifespan then we will reach our end around the year 2044. In the critical stage Athens produced Pericles, the best of leaders, but it also produced Alcibiades who was brilliant, from the best family and had been a pupil of Socrates but was totally devoid of principles. Who is our Alcibiades these days?” 

Well, yes, sort of. Athens went through wilder swings, across those 256 years, including stretches when the oligarchs resumed control, and others when democracy resembled more a mob than a deliberative assembly of adults. (In fact, the U.S. has gone through swings, as well, which I call "phases of our ongoing/recurring Civil War.")

Much of this came to mind while watching Mark Zuckerberg testify to Congress.  I've been to Facebook twice, in the last year or so, advising one of the teams trying to come up with ways to make facts and reliability more a part of that online roiling stew. (In EARTH (1989) I predicted social media would become a morass of self-reinforcing echo-chambers.) Alas, people keep inviting me to come and consult... and never take my simple advice.

== How to defend Truth ==

Which brings us to this chilling revelation about foreign electoral meddling and our current "Infopocalypse Now.”

Those with less education are more biased by false information - even once they know it's false. Scientific American recently published an excellent analysis of the research on fake news, misinformation, and cognitive ability. The nut of it is this: those with low cognitive ability are more likely to believe false information even after they've been explicitly told it's false.

Cognitive ability also correlates with education, which teaches meta-cognitive skills - the ability to monitor and regulate one's own thinking, which can be used to combat the effects of misinformation on worldview.

Among the disturbing findings:
· The Trump campaign targeted low cognitive-ability voters.
· Repeated exposure is more convincing than one-time exposure.
· Fake news is more viral than real news.

Case in point: "The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now. But now they're setting records. They're at a record level." - Donald Trump, to Reuters, quoted on msn.com.

You and I find it hard to believe we are members of the same civilization – nay, species – as people who are able to murmur such an incantation, knowing full well that – if they allowed any fact person to speak, the nostrum would prove diametrically opposite to truth. The word “Idiocracy” comes to mind.

But is this surprising? The Confederacy always relied upon this: Aristocrats pay for propaganda to get the most dimwitted whites to march off and fight for the rights of the richest.

And yes, this is using democracy to destroy itself. When the war on all fact professions is done, and the aristocracy is the only power left standing, you can bet that democracy will be curtailed. The one thing puzzling me is how - once all the fact and skill professions are pounded down - the feudal lords expect that strategy to ultimately go well for them.

(Source: Berit Anderson's SCOUT site and the Strategic News Service).

== And finally... ==

Ex-Speaker John Boehner Joins Marijuana Firm's Advisory Board. Seriously. How many times have we seen this? These guys scream at Martin Luther King... then later proclaim themselves to be his heirs. They cry out: "cars don't cause smog!" And "it's okay that rivers catch fire!" And "tobacco is good for you!" And "Russia is our pal!"  And "glaciers are expanding!"... and a jillion other fact-hating nostrums.  Then, when utterly disproved and the delaying tactic is used up?

It's "who, me? I never!" 

The last thing they'll admit it that being always, always, always wrong should affect a jerk's credibility.

Experts and reformers aren't always right! But you troglodytes have such a horrid record that you bear the burden of proof.  And hence your all-out war on every single fact-using profession.

Light-up, John. Inhale. Maybe it will deaden the dull ache in some residual stump of a soul, after a lifetime spent betraying your nation, world and civilization.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Space Marvels - near and far


Lift your gaze.  Our ructions down here are mere blips and bumps on the road skyward.

The 2018 NIAC Awards were announced a short time ago. Fascinating projects, just this side of science fiction! I’ll I grilled many of these researchers and NIAC fellows in DC, at NASA HQ, just last week. Think about attending the NIAC Symposium in Boston, this September.

Wonderful and wonder-filled and beautiful illustrations, by James Vaughn, depict near and farther-future missions in space. You'll be glad you looked! Vaughn does not have a book yet, but there is a site for prints and posters.

And real-life images are even better! Mike Ravine, the camera guy for the Juno spacecraft, just sent around a link for pics from Juno's latest overflight of the Great Red Spot last month on its twelfth perijove pass.  And here’s another higher res version to make you go wow!

How awful that so many of our fellow citizens are never exposed to these wonders, in order to feel thrilled to be members of a civilization that does things like this!  We must do something about that. You can shake your friends and relatives awake to marvel.  In fact... it's your duty.

Mike adds: A bit of background on this.  Because Junocam was put on the Juno Mission for public outreach, not science, we don’t have much funding to support data processing. So, that data are released to a public website a day or so after we get it down, and a small bunch of amateur image processors start grinding on it.  And they post their work back on the same website.  There’s quite a bit of variability to the product that comes out of this process, but a couple of these guys do a really nice job."

Isn’t that wonderful?  Taxpayers insisted that the science probe carry a camera. And what a camera! And citizens are the ones processing these images. This is ours. And what greater proof do you need, that we are the very opposite of decadent.

== A lunar orbital gateway ==
NASA hopes to start to build a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, for astronauts and research, launching the first element of the Gateway – its power and propulsion module – into space in 2022.  This concept offers a rare overlap-consensus amid the bitter, politically-partisan divide over where human expeditions should go next. 

Sure, everyone talks about Mars as the alluring strategic goal (though the president proclaims he's the first to think of it.) But most scientists agree with the the tech-investors who want to mine asteroids along the way, because of the vast wealth that could be extracted from them, while learning how to exploit the Martian moon, Phobos. The Obama Administration supported that path... 

...and hence asteroids are dismissed by uniform Republican catechism, declaring instead that we should join all the Apollo wannabes out there -- nations and zillionaires eager to plant dusty footprints yet again on an almost completely useless, barren, lunar plain.

(NASA has cancelled a mission to assay the resources that may be available to humans on the moon, despite President Donald Trump's administration making it a priority to send humans back there.  There’s an explanation, but you wouldn’t believe it, if I told you.)

The lunar orbital station offers a way to service both goals. Asteroidal samples acquired by robots could be studied and processed there, while we learn much about distance-survival methods.  Meanwhile, we could run a hotel and charge all the wannabes eager to get down to the moon, for reasons of national pride, or tourism.  There are several other uses for such a station, that I won't go into, here.

What does all this mean? That our civil servants are moving us forward, even when their political overlords are out of their cotton-pickin' minds.

A fascinating perusal of the business landscape for space launch services, and why SpaceX may already have won.


== Extending our reach ==

The first-ever affordable luxury space hotel may be launched in 2021.   A 12-day stay aboard Aurora Station will start at $9.5 million. From 2001 through 2009, seven private citizens took a total of eight trips to the International Space Station (ISS), paying an estimated $20 million to $40 million each. Um, an optimistic schedule, methinks.  Still, I forecast a burgeoning amateur space boom, in EXISTENCE

“Several other companies, including Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace, also aim to launch commercial space stations to Earth orbit in the next few years to meet anticipated demand from space tourists, national governments, researchers and private industry.”  And yes, there should be a hotel orbiting above the Moon!

The RemoveDebris space robot has a net, a harpoon and a dragsail on-board. To be launched from the Space Station, it will hunt large items of orbiting junk, glom onto them and use the drag sail to de-orbit the debris.  Not quite as elegant as the method I portray in the first chapter of EXISTENCE… but progress, nonetheless.

The Google Lunar X-Prize was a formidable challenge. Of 30 original applicants – private consortiums, not governments, hoping to land a useful rover on the Moon – five remained, claiming to be almost ready when the extended deadline expired.  Now the X Prize Foundation has started a new challenge, giving them another chance… so far without a big sponsor.  Anyone out there eager to step up?  

Mind you, I’d love to be proved wrong in my impression (shared by Andy Weir) that for at least a generation the Moon’s surface will be a dusty wasteland, useless for anything but tourism.  

Chasing New Horizons: The Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, written by the mission director Alan Stern, along with astrobiologist David Grinspoon (author of Earth in Human Hands), has just been published. A fascinating tale of teams of competent humans striving (on a shoestring) to achieve the impossible, extending our awareness to the edge of interstellar space.

Half a dozen volunteers spent 6 months living in a dome on the high-barren flanks of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, as part of a NASA mission to study human factors in dealing with such an extended period of cramped isolation.

A meteor that exploded in 2008 over the Nubian Desert contained embedded diamonds that, in turn, offered trapped substances that could only have been formed at super high pressures, deep inside a planet that “probably met its end in the demolition derby of the early solar system, but the scale of the object (or objects) was still unknown until the inclusions were described.”

Planetary scientists still aren't sure exactly where the parent body that broke apart into ureilites formed in the solar system, or how it was ultimately destroyed.

A new “kilopower” nuclear power system that could enable long-duration crewed missions to the Moon, Mars and destinations beyond recently passed an extensive operating test in the Nevada desert, performing well under a variety of challenging conditions.

And this just in: Supermassive black hole violently swallows star, and researchers watch. Kewl!  Or hot.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Predicting the Korea "deal." Kim gets everything he wants.

Alas, the news just won't leave us be. Especially after our alliances were demolished at the G-7 summit... and we're about to be betrayed at the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore.

And hence, I will do the adult thing and couch my predictions as a wager. A bet. I have a reputation for foresight. But I never say what will happen.  But I reckon the following scenario has better than two-to-one odds. (At the end of this piece, see some alternatives with lesser-odds.)


== It's the Conventional Forces, Stupid ==

Let's start by questioning an assumption shared across the political spectrum, that the central issue is Kim Jong Un's access to nuclear weaponry. Oh, sure, that's important, but it is also a potemkin issue, a mask for deeper purposes.

First, despite achieving H-bombs and ICBMs at remarkable -- even implausible -- speeds, Kim's danger to the U.S. remains far from imminent. He knows that any attempt to harm others with those bombs would be personal suicide for him. And he already had the capability, with thousands of dug-in artillery tubes, to flatten Seoul in a matter of minutes. Nevertheless:

If Kim Jong Un verifiably surrenders all his nukes, I will eat a bug.

Sure, there will be superficial concessions: a supervised elimination of nuclear R&D, along with demolition of nuclear production and testing sites. Big deal. These are no longer needed by the NK regime. Indeed, it is my private belief that they were always just for show; he got his nukes elsewhere. In any event, none of those concessions matter. Those facilities are now expenses he'd rather eliminate from his ledger.

Knowing that he holds all the cards, Kim will demand and get a residuum of perhaps five or six nuclear weapons... as a "deterrent."  He will also insist on guarantees against any attempted regime change, plus an end to sanctions, plus a massive aid package and -- above all -- a draw-down of conventional arms and armies on both sides.

Who could object to that, you ask? Isn't peace the direction we want to go?
Oh, but do try to see things as the professionals in our studious, thoughtful, but maligned "deep state" services and agencies already do. Especially this simple fact:

Conventional armed forces are incredibly expensive. 

The biggest threat to the Pyongyang leadership caste is their vast, bulky, and expensive conventional army. Not only is it bankrupting the nation, but at any moment, an uprising at one base could rapidly spread, turning Kim's military into an instant, deadly danger to the regime. While others point to historical examples like Libya and Iraq, the best parallel is the brutal Romanian-communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was overthrown in an almost instantaneous popular revolt, spearheaded by countless junior officers.

For reasons of both economic and personal survival, Kim desperately needs a smaller army.

In contrast, nuclear weapons - once you have them - are cheap to hold, to hide and to maintain.

Kim's current dilemma has only one solution, then. Keep enough nukes to deter any adventurous notions  on our side... and hold onto those artillery tubes threatening Seoul... then entice both South Koreans and Americans to shout hosannahs over a "deal" to slash their own forces below the DMZ. Forces they can easily afford and that pose them zero risk.

Let's be clear: any conventional draw-down is Kim's chief aim, his win-win.

But oh, why not also get the South and the U.S. to pay for it all, ending sanctions and with massive aid, welcoming Kim to the club of international leaders? Add more wins.

Look, I'm no war-monger. Elsewhere I've railed against what seems to be powerful momentum toward a U.S.-Iran conflict that can only have one possible outcome. (We would lose.) Hence, I do not oppose genuine deal-making that could lead to actual peace on the Korean peninsula.

On the other hand, we need to learn from the author of "The Art of the Deal." Especially when Donald Trump is clearly falling -- either emotionally or deliberately -- for every sucker-trap that he described in that prophetic book. Desperate to save his presidency he cares only about symbolism.

Sure, it's a shout into the wind, as Nobel-level praise will foam across all ends of the political spectrum. But the "deal" that appears to be taking shape is one that benefits a mad and brutal dictator at every level. It is one in which we lose-lose-lose.



== Addendum: lesser odds ==

It is possible that Donald Trump will do something else. He might look Kim in the eye, then swivel and leave.


Think about it.  What else could add to his cred so simply? Implying that he truly is a savvy "gut" genius?


It would throw all critics off balance, and that would serve the purposes of Beijing and Moscow, too.  


Lesser odds. One in five, I'd say.  But again, theater, not substance. The real enemy is every professional and "deep state" smartypants. They - and we - lose-lose-lose
.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Central Control over AI... and everything else

Back home, hoping for a rest after nine weeks of relentless travel and speechifying.  But no, I cannot lay off this unpaid scrivening, here. Because, well, the issues and misunderstandings are just to rife. For example: I was recently in China for a corporate conference, to keynote a session on “Daily Life in the Future.” There, I got to sample different cultural and political perspectives in Shenzhen from Hong Kong, just across the border.

Around the same time, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by a Chinese academic that has caused a stir, by offering a cogent and thoughtful – and ultimately wrongheaded – argument that the sole solution to AI – related problems will be control by a paramount party-state.

We need to understand how these polemical rationalizations — e.g. “we are getting even for colonialism”  — aim to gird and rationalize a heightened level of intensity. Intensity that's not needed, in order to develop an advanced and competitive nation… but that will be necessary if your aim is to stir militancy, even war.

== The argument for central control over AI… and everything else ==

Feng Xiang, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, argues that AI will spell the end of capitalism. 

First, the standard Marxian cycle will return, with a vengeance. For lack of anti-monopoly or redistributive reform (like those enacted by our parents, under FDR, or our great grandparents, under the other Roosevelt), each business cycle will result in greater wealth disparities and a narrowing of the owner-controlling caste, leading to a conversion of vibrantly competitive markets back into history's standard, uncreative oligarchic pyramid. 

Naturally, Professor Feng’s proposed solution is also Marxist. Party-guided proletarian revolution.

Second, technological obsolescence of many types of employment will break the livelihoods of hundreds of millions, if not billions. No longer able to negotiate or bargain for the value of their labor, workers will be at the mercy of the Owner Caste. And yes, ditto. Feng’s prescription for a resolution is Sino-Marxist.

Finally, any AI that gains control over important systems with unsupervised intelligence may pose an existential risk to humanity. For this and other reasons, Professor Feng argues that research into artificial intelligence should be tightly controlled by a benevolent socialist state.

Why am I giving space over to a communist state-servant who promotes Marxist notions that I clearly disagree-with? Because it is well-worthwhile reading his appraisal of the looming problems. After which it is instructive to study his prescriptions! Because simplistic panaceas will doubtless appeal to billions, over the next couple of decades. Especially when our own lords seem determined to follow the Marxian pattern, by driving the middle class into penury.

You need to grasp the polemical intent underlying Professor Feng's missive. And to see how Feng's prescriptions do not follow, logically, from his well-described premises.

(Note: for a much more detailed look at these rationalizations for recreating the feudal pyramid, see: Jiang Shigong's monograph on ‘Philosophy and History: Interpreting the “Xi Jinping Era” through Xi’s Report to the Nineteenth National Congress of the CCP’.)

== Zooming in ==

Let’s dive into Feng Xiang’s own words:

“But China’s socialist market economy could provide a solution to this. If AI rationally allocates resources through big data analysis, and if robust feedback loops can supplant the imperfections of “the invisible hand” while fairly sharing the vast wealth it creates, a planned economy that actually works could at last be achievable.”

Hold back your visceral reaction. Yes, yes, this is a blatant attempt to justify the ingathering of overwhelming power into a permanent, narrow, self-chosen caste. It’s the same model that dominated 99% of all human societies. Each of those also invoked incantations to explain why a dominant caste should hold and monopolize all power.

Almost anyone raised in the Western Enlightenment – or by Hollywood film morality – will feel instant recognition and loathing. Indeed, the difference between a state controlled by capitalist owner-oligarchy and a pyramidal hierarchy controlled by communist party elite is (basically) only one of vocabulary and incantations, not structure or end result.

But as I said; hold on a minute. It’s one thing to recognize a servile charm-chant to justify central power. It's quite another thing to dismiss every aspect of Prof. Feng's argument. We’d be fools to do so.

“The more AI advances into a general-purpose technology that permeates every corner of life, the less sense it makes to allow it to remain in private hands that serve the interests of the few instead of the many. More than anything else, the inevitability of mass unemployment and the demand for universal welfare will drive the idea of socializing or nationalizing AI.”

Complaining about the rapacious, insatiable and socially irresponsible behavior of today’s capitalist corporations, he asserts:

“These companies have been able to get away with their social irresponsibility because the legal system and its loopholes in the West are geared to protect private property above all else. Of course, in China, we have big privately owned Internet companies like Alibaba and Tencent. But unlike in the West, they are monitored by the state and do not regard themselves as above or beyond social control.”

In other words, Professor Feng proclaims that state planning will be boosted in effectiveness by the very thing (AI) that would be lethal, under capitalism.

Feng Xiang continues: “Marx’s dictum, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,” needs an update for the 21st century: “From the inability of an AI economy to provide jobs and a living wage for all, to each according to their needs.”’

Why have I given lengthy space to this? Even urging you all to go read the original, for yourself? Because of the extreme (and interesting) cognitive dissonance of this essay, which accurately describes a trio of serious dilemmas that have us clearly on course to failure...

...only then Feng explicitly declares that the only answer is to return to a different failure mode! A governance method that proved universally calamitous across 6000 years.

== An aside: the “central planning wall” ==

Consider that state planners know there is a “wall of incompetence.” Such a wall tripped up the Soviets in the 1950s, when their command methods for building primary industry (steel, dams, railroads) that worked so well in the 1930s proved inept at secondary industry capable of producing a refrigerator that anyone wanted. 

The 1980s Japanese zaibatsus – organized by the Ministry of Trade -- were convinced that their planned mercantilism had overcome Soviet errors, by using capitalist tools… till hitting their wall: the tertiary economy.

There can be no arguing with the fantastic successes wrought by the current Chinese leadership’s use of planning combined with corporate structures and predatory mercantilism. Even if their debt bubble pops tomorrow, their achievements in advancing their nation have been epic. 

Yes, a few of us point out that the fundamental key to their success was an American innovation – generously counter-mercantilist trade patterns instituted by the American pax since 1946 -- that uplifted half the population of the globe. Without that unprecedented indulgence by the era's "central kingdom," the “Chinese Method” would have gone exactly nowhere.  Still, the engineers who occupy seats on the current Beijing politburo are smart guys, and they can be excused some hubris, believing they have a way around the next state planning “wall.”

The magic tool they have used for a decade as been pre-AI computer modeling. And they expect that to transform into the ultimate wall-breaker – true artificial intelligence -- which will supposedly make economic and tech models so realistic that central planning will outstrip every system based upon Adam Smith’s markets or Friedrich Hayek’s ‘distributed wisdom.’

Do you now understand better the quasi-religious faith that central planners vest in the positive traits of AI?  Meanwhile, they posit – along with Elon Musk and many worried westerners - that there can be negative effects of burgeoning AI, as well! Even calamitous ones. And hence, Feng asks: who better to prevent Robopacalypse than a central party state?

Yes, yes, he follows his cogent dilemma description with a self-serving, magical incantation for centralization, without a scintilla of evidence or reason. No pyramidal power hierarchy ever evaded for long the core human contradiction: that we are delusional beings. Only one antidote has ever been found for delusion and error – free and open criticism. And tiny ruling castes always, always crush criticism.

They will hire gifted theologians – like Professor Feng – to concoct catechisms in whatever state religion justifies paramount power. But no matter how potent their AI, the fundamental remains the same. Garbage in, garbage out.

GiGo. There will be a wall.

== Don’t be smug ==

Do not use my own glib incantation about GiGo to dismiss all of Feng Xiang’s arguments! He is absolutely right that:

- We must find ways to avoid a gathering of all power into our own style of pyramid. One that’s inarguably worse – in its final stage – than Confucian paternalism. Feudal lordship by an owner aristocracy.

- Looming technological unemployment does mean that some renegotiation of the social contract will be absolutely vital.  As in Roosevelt’s time, it will involve some redistribution of ownership, likely vesting all citizens in shares of the means of production. (A much better solution than universal welfare income: read Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage.)  The Greatest Generation knew this, as did the American founders, who redistributed a quarter of all the land in Britain’s former colonies.

But an American style reform would still entail the widest possible distribution and separation of power and influence. Indeed, although there will be screams of “socialism!” such a redistribution would be diametrically opposite to both types of pyramids. Both feudal oligarchy and Chinese Party hierarchy.

And yes, AI could either help or impede, depending on one thing. Transparency.

== Feng is also right that AI threatens us with peril ==

Want to see how creepy the present situation is?

In a 2014 article, Prof. Shawn Bayern demonstrated that anyone can confer legal personhood on an autonomous computer algorithm by putting it in control of a limited liability corporation. (“Independently wealthy software.”)  Such entities now operate independently, accepting and transferring payments and hiring humans for offline services.

In a fascinating article, UCLA Professor Lynn Lopucki asserts that algorithmic entities are likely to prosper first in criminal activities or those that benefit most from operating in the dark.  

This comes as no surprise to readers of science fiction. Autonomous algorithms featured in the novels of John Brunner and Joe Haldeman, long before gaining attention in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” wherein the protagonist only at the end realizes his employer was a cryptic AI. And that is just one of countless ways that new AI methods can only be turned benign if they operate purely under light. 

My favorite solution – a universal, international treaty – would solve all this in just two sentences:

“If you think you own something – from a car to a home, to a corporation, or ship, or algorithm – you must say so, identifying it openly. No shell entity may layer more than two deep before revealing owners who are living humans or totally transparent foundations.”

Two sentences.

Some have called this a “welfare program for lawyers,” since the litigation that it unleashed would last a decade. So? The biggest immediate effect would be a tsunami of suddenly revealed and abandoned property – never declared by the owners who acquired it through crime -- perhaps enough to give all legitimate taxpayers a tax holiday, worldwide. 

If you are a legitimate and honest taxpayer, there is no measure proposed by anyone that would benefit you more. I defend this proposal elsewhere. But here I assert simply:

* If it were imposed and enforced worldwide. No other measure would do as much to restore fairness and enlightenment and progress to the world. *

== The Final Feng ==

You all have been champing at the bit to point out the last and most glaring error of Feng Xiang’s missive. To declare that AI entities will be rendered harmless if controlled by a paramount party elite, atop an all-powerful central state. The error is obvious:

1. So empowered, that core elite will be unquestionable. A Big Brother that no Orwell could ever have imagined.

2. What happens when the AI gets truly much smarter than its masters? Won’t this power structure be trivially convenient for that entity to simply and subtly invert?  A pyramid of already unquestionable power, easily taken over by the very entities it claimed to control.

Jesus. Is any other outcome even remotely possible?

Yes, I prefer the distributed-competitive model, breaking up all elites and powers into reciprocally-accountable lumps. A method that works only under fully pervasive light. But when light does shine into all crevices, it works better than any other system ever devised.  (Why do you think that all the world’s oligarchs seek – in a worldwide putsch – to strangle the method, forever?)

Read Feng Xiang’s missive, with all of this in mind. There is partial value… like many things in life… but also silliness. Use light to separate them.

== Coda ==