Thursday, December 03, 2015

Smart tech! - and how to allocate your well-targeted philanthropy

Tis the season for giving, right? We are all getting emails from philanthropic entities… and I am all in favor! But can some basic principle guide your choice? How about a strategic approach?  Start with a list of things you care about in the world. I’ll bet every one of your concerns has some NGO dedicated to making it happen. So why not, once a year, pay dues to a dozen or so? That way, through the magic of “proxy activism,” you can know you’re doing the basic minimum… hiring others to make the world better for you!  

For example combine the Sierra Club and Greenpeace with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU, plus The Planetary Society and Oxfam— six modest checks and voila! You’re a participant in eco, liberties and hunger shifts for the better and helping us move forward exploring the cosmos. Sure, it’s good to do more than that! By all means pick a political party and a candidate. A local library and food bank. A local high school robotics team. But here’s the deal; if you are doing less than a dozen such memberships - chosen by your own standards - then it’s pretty clear what kind of person you aren’t. 

Proxy activism says: “I know I’m cheap and lazy and distracted by other things.  But at least I can give my support to a dozen NGOS who will hire dedicated people to be active, saving the world in ways that I — in my lazy-distracted way — think it needs saving!” Learn more about this approach, which I have been promoting for two decades.  

A final note to those of you who believe in singularities or life extension.  Okay so you've got your cryonics contract and all that. What makes you think future people will want to revive you, just to spend money you squirreled away in investments?  Bah.  They will be choosy who they want to revive and share their world!  And they'll take into account whether any of the frozen folks truly did try to make it a better world.

Come to think of it, that's a reasonable-better standard for getting into classic Heaven.

== Interesting! ==

The new season of Xploration Earth2050 started last week. It's good to be back. You can watch both seasons on Hulu or Amazon. And yes, I give good blather.

And  now a holiday season run-down of cool items.

How can we fight back against the War on Science?  Billionaire Yuri Milner, who established the Breakthrough Institute’s new endeavor to re-invigorate SETI, now leads a group of his peers in establishing a set of big-time, Hollywood-style awards for top scientists, hopefully leading to some of the burnished prestige that comes from red-carpet treatment.  With his friends Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, 23andMe founder Ann Wojcicki and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, Milner wants the world to celebrate the great research being done in fundamental physics, life sciences and math.  Each of the seven winners gets $3 million and a chance to stand onstage before a crowd of Silicon Valley’s leading lights, in a ceremony broadcast live on the National Geographic channel.

An interesting rumination on “algocracy”… our incipient trend toward leaving some kinds of decisions – even policy – to be decided by algorithms. John Danaher writes, “Public decision-making processes ought to be legitimate. Most people take this to mean that the processes should satisfy a number of proceduralist and instrumentalist conditions. In other words, the processes should be fair and transparent whilst at the same time achieving good outcomes. The problem with algocratic systems is that they tend to favour good outcomes over transparency and fairness.” Someone watch the source material and report back here? 

U.S. shale oil producers shocked everyone by innovating to remain efficient and profitable when prices fell below $50 a barrel, despite Saudi efforts to flood the market and drive them out of business.  Now though, at $40 or so, U.S. producers are finally pulling back... which should not be taken as bad news!  Let our oil sit in the ground when it’s this cheap, if the Saudis are willing to sell at a loss.  Now is the time to invest in re-filling the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.. exactly opposite to the Republican strategy of always selling our national resources low (to pals) and buying high. (You should see the travesty that traitors did with our Helium Reserve.)  

Merrill-Lynch projects investment opportunities in artificial intelligence, in general robotics, drones… and – well – killer robots.  Ironic, given how Wall Street is busy funding the biggest chunks of AI research, all of it aimed at developing “skynet” intelligences that will be designed from go to be predatory, parasitical, amoral and insatiable. 

== Tech Advances ==

Moore’s Law ain’t done yet?  Shrinking transistors even further… probably sometime after the beginning of the next decade, reducing the contact point between the two materials to just 40 atoms in width, the researchers said.  By simply swapping carbon nanotube transistors for conventional ones in a simulated IBM microprocessor, they were able to increase speeds by as much as seven orders of magnitude or, alternatively, achieve almost as significant power savings.

Smart LEDs will help us save the planet.  They will also communicate with the house, with each other and you phone.  Introducing “Li-Fi” — 100x as fast and capable as Wi-fi and just in time for the Internet of Things.  The good news is obvious. More info!  Faster!  Can we get all that without the bad? Smart bulbs spying on us for hackers or The Man?  

Li-Fi presents one more example of the utter impossibility of the “solution” suggested by most well-meaning civil libertarians… endless legislation to reduce info-flows. That will not protect freedom or even privacy.  Not at all.  Not even a little bit.  It never has and never, ever will. But if we can catch the voyeurs, we might prevent them from actually using the info to harm us.  Why, oh why is that so counter-intuitive?

== The point is driven home ==

They will be able to see through walls.... A team from MIT has invented "RF-Capture" – which can discern and identify persons by analyzing the reflections from ambient WiFi signals, even through walls as they reflect off the moving human body, parsing heart rate and breathing patterns. Creeped out yet? But this is only one more out of a near infinite number of examples of how futile is the routine and reflex prescription offered by modern activists recommending that we all "hide!" 

That reflex is becoming pathetic, distracting folks from the only thing that can can possibly, even conceivably, defend freedom and (some) privacy. Forget the cowardly and hopeless goal of hiding. Be militant, insisting that average citizens share the elite's unstoppably rising power to see. Our hope lies in demanding and developing the power to supervise those in power. If they are going to be able to peer at us through walls, then we must seize our right to look back.

== Future Tech Miscellany ==

How will we enhance bio-security? The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas. This state-of-the-art maximum biocontainment facility will offer leading-edge capabilities to help protect our food supply and the nation’s public health. They are beginning with a $100,000 prize/challenge for unique ideas how to do this.  

Huh. The X-Prize methodology has been really taking off.  Its advantages are huge and manifold. (1) it stimulates imaginative thinking from a wide variety of outside competitors who feel incentivized to think outside the box. (2) In most such contests, the teams each spend much more than the prize purse, in (very realistic) hope of followup patents and contracts and publicity for outside customers, even for second or third placers. (3) the prize-givers do not have to spend much till they get results dropped into their laps. (4) It is a creativity-stimulating methodology that is inherently difficult for closed or despotic societies to emulate.

Perhaps overly optimistic... Super-fast hyperloop transportation could arrive in about five years! 

Researchers have developed a method to produce the highly-sought after graphene that is 100 times cheaper than the traditional method.

Heard of “Gorilla Glass?” Get ready for "Godzilla Glass." 

People call bright flashlights "tactical" ... this one might be subject to arms treaties.  1000-Watt LED Flashlight: 90,000 Lumens

== Preparing for change ==

The first map showing the world's hidden groundwater brings us closer to estimating how much there is, and when it will run out if we over-use the resource. 

Science is offering paleontological perspective on climate change.  At one extreme is the “Green Sky” catastrophe that (we now think) drove the worst extinction of them all, at the end of the Permian, which a methane-flooded atmosphere, joined by sea-bottom hydrogen-sulfide - became acidic, killing most of life on Earth.  Let’s try not to set off a methane-release calamity of our own, as ever more of that powerful greenhouse gas fizzes out of hydrate ices long buried under the now-warming seas.

Milder but important-to-understand swings happened when earlier greenhouse eras suddenly swung negative, leading to ice ages.  In the Journal of Geology there is a new paper that describes how dust in Paleozoic times resulted in plankton blooms and reduction of CO2 levels in the air that were many times present day levels to such low levels as ice ages were initiated. 

Only note that this particular article originates from a controversial figure who was involved in the “rogue experiment” a few years ago – sponsored by a native American tribe – to dump iron dust into currents off the Pacific Northwest.  While I share a belief that experiments in ocean fertilization have been improperly blocked and should proceed, I cannot actually condone rogue and unvetted and rather unscientific “experiments” of this kind. 

The dust thing is of course related to why -- in my novel Earth -- I portray tide powered bottom-stirrers that send up plumes of ocean bottom muck into fast currents, thus fertilizing vast stretches that are now almost lifeless deserts.  This would be better than the iron-dumping experiments, since stirring simply emulates what nature already does in rich fishery zones like Chile and the Grand Banks.

== Biotechnology advances ==

The latest Great Life Hope for those who want to live forever?  An experimental drug targeting Alzheimer’s disease shows anti-aging effects in animal tests. “We did not predict we’d see this sort of anti-aging effect, but J147 made old mice look like they were young, based upon a number of physiological parameters.” Oh, but there are many ways to get such effects in mice. And any such drug… that our ancestors could have evolved to synthesize themselves … classifies as “low hanging fruit.” The effects on ameliorating specific syndromes of aging may be fine.  But it will not (I predict) affect even slightly the "wall" of 100 to 120 years.

A new test detects virtually any virus that infects people and animals. Subtypes can be identified easily. To develop the test, the researchers targeted unique stretches of DNA or RNA from every known group of viruses that infects humans and animals.  “It also may be possible to modify the test so that it could be used to detect pathogens other than viruses, including bacteria, fungi and other microbes, as well as genes that would indicate the pathogen is resistant to treatment with antibiotics or other drugs.”  

An artificial retina can be implanted and restore some sight to certain kinds of blindness. And cataracts, known to be the leading cause of blindness in humans, may soon be cured via a simple eye drop.

Scientists would like to understand what the genetic basis is for humans' apparently special capacity for logic, abstract thought, complex emotions and language. Humans and chimpanzees have DNA that's remarkably similar — researchers say our genetic code is about 95 percent identical. “Scientists would like to be able to make a genetic change and show that it really makes a difference. "But we're talking about humans and chimpanzees here, and you cannot experiment on either of those," she notes. "And so it's very challenging to prove causation."  

I guess the future is (almost) here. Take this title of a talk at USC: “Engineering Memories:  A Neural Prosthesis for Cognitive Function.”  Yes a microchip implant in the hippocampus to get around damaged areas that destroyed memory function. They aim at creating: “a biomimetic model of hippocampal nonlinear dynamics that can perform the same function as part of the hippocampus.  Through bi-directional communication with other neural tissue that normally provides the inputs and outputs to/from a damaged hippocampal area, the biomimetic model can serve as a neural prosthesis.”  Woof.

The PCS - paracingulate sulcus - is one of the last structural folds to develop in the brain before birth, and varies in size between individuals. It is linked to the ability to distinguish real from imagined information, a process known as ‘reality monitoring.’ In people diagnosed with schizophrenia, a 1 cm reduction in the fold’s length increased the likelihood of hallucinations by nearly 20%.

In an example of rapid evolution in action, three new species of wasps are turning into three new species, in real-short time.  Let's hope they don't become as terrifying as in Joe Wallace's creepy novel Invasive Species.

And finally...

"Cli Fi" Maven Dan Bloom offers the following observation: "In Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Nightfall,” a journalist in the distant future on a far away imaginary planet named Lagash strikingly resembles the cynical columnists on the planet Earth. Asimov’s story deals with a kind of climate denialists. A Lagash scientist lashes out at a newspaper editor who could be someone like Marc Morano or Anthony Watts of today:
         “You have led a vast newspaper campaign against the efforts of myself and my colleagues to organize the world against the menace which it is now too late to avert.”
        That quote from a 1941 sci fi story offers a chilling forecast of a modern journalism that gives equal time to climate change deniers. Scary."


Alfred Differ said...

Seven orders of magnitude for transistor density? That's about 13 doublings or about 26 years, right? That would get us to about 2040. Whenever I try to think about this stuff, though, I try to imagine what that means in a universe where the speed of light is finite. Like ours. At very high speeds, these machines are going to have a small event horizon. THAT should put a halt to some of what we are imagining.

Jumper said...

On human language abilities, lately I've been pondering a hypothesis that use of language causes a great loss of a capability which has no name - because we lost it! This would be something the larger mammals retain, a form of cognition greater than we now realize. Very alien to what we know.

This line of thought is new to me, and on the surface seems mystical or science-fictional. I'll keep working on it.

Paul451 said...

"That's about 13 doublings or about 26 years, right? That would get us to about 2040"

Heh, that's a trick I do with a lot of theoretical or lab-level announcements of tech breakthroughs. I look at the doubling/halving speed for the type of technology (computer chips, solar panels, batteries, etc) and work out when the breakthrough needs to hit the market in order to keep up, then contrast that with the development level. If they can't conceivably make that deadline, their "breakthrough" will fail to eventuate and can be ignored. If they can, it's something to watch.

David Brin said...

Jumper the notion that humanity abandoned something while becoming what we are is central to my story Chrysalis, which you can read when my 3nrd story collection comes out, in a month or so. INSISTENCE OF VISION.

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin,

Yuri Milner's new prize for scientists is just the sort of thing I was talking about a few months back (though at the time I was more focused on good samaritan awards). Still, if people tune in, this could help encourage more people to go for science careers (I would say that grape minds think alike, but right now I feel more like a sack of potatoes). Perhaps it might encourage the wrong kind of people, if the glory is too glitzy. Maybe it would be good to do something like this on a smaller, more local scale.

Paul SB said...

There is a dark, corrupt spot in our collective soul that I sometimes despair of.

I think we all do. I usually get a good catharsis when I feel this way by listening to music that matches. Recently it has been a song called "Despair" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When the grey clouds of winter roll in and my serotonin levels drop, I go for heavier stuff - though if I start listening Sibelius I'm in real trouble...

Too tired, I'll get back later.

David Brin said...

Ah Tacitus. Accompany it with Kierkegaaaaaaard...

Paul SB said...

I'm not sure I would go that far...Existentialism can be pretty unhelpful. :/

Paul SB said...

If the size of the paracingulate sulcus could be measured with a less expensive technology like QEEG it would be possible to gather some really useful data. I'm not a the betting sort, but I would be willing to lay wagers on average lengths in specific groups of people, like the Promise Keepers I mentioned earlier.

Tacitus2 said...

More practically, and even on topic I guess, I am taking two months off of work to get a first time FIRST robotics team going at our high school. It was very gratifying to see many of the "alumni" from my middle school program sign up. Taller, at least little, technicolor hair, one bringing his girl friend....

There is still a lot of positive in the world and I think the side benefit of telling the 9 to 5 grind (or in the peculiar world of the ER the dusk to dawn grind) adios for a while will be a much needed tonic.


Erin Schram said...

David Brin asked,
An interesting rumination on “algocracy”… our incipient trend toward leaving some kinds of decisions – even policy – to be decided by algorithms. ... Someone watch the source material and report back here?

Okay, I am an expert on algorithms, especially on the legality of data mining. Also in my search for a new job I noticed potential employers who are using more Big Data algorithms in their business decisions. Thus, I am passionate about the subject and watched John Danaher's talk.

Algocratic systems are where a data mining algorithm goes through a lot of data and makes a decision without input from a human.

At minute 2 Danaher tells a story of a man having his driver's license revoked because a data mining algorithm to find fake identities falsely tagged him. He goes on to talk of the philosophy of decision making. He gets into concise points around minute 21, such as, "People who rely on algocratic systems often justify them on the grounds that they will be better able to reach the kinds of outcomes that we think are desireable," and "We couldn't actually have human beings sort through that database." At minute 32 he gives related references. At minute 35 he discusses methods to minimize the threat. Danaher suggests (1) insist on transparency of the algorithms, (2) we could enhance human beings so that they can review the processes, (3) human-machine partnerships, and (4) human society could change so that algocracy is no longer relevant. He gives the weaknesses of all of those, except the fourth which was mostly a throw-away line.

His qualm with the transparency solution is that the algorithms are hard to understand, reducing the review to the task of an elite, who could become a decision-making aristrocracy. And if algorithms are piled on algorithms, their interaction could be beyond human comprehension.

His human-machine partnership is a science-fiction concept where the human mind interfaces directly with the computer. But I have seen research on machine-learning algorithms that explain themselves. I rather liked a technique called Lorax that explained the decisions of the Random Forest algorithm, quote, "Lorax speaks for the trees." Too bad the NSA has not published that technique in an unclassified journal yet. Self-explaining algorithms are a more feasible human-machine partnership.

In my opinion, the problems of algocracy are not new. They are the old problem of bureaucracy combined with the adage, "To err is human. To really mess thing up takes a computer." Let me point out Gordon Dickson's 1965 story, "Computers Don't Argue," which illustrates an algocratic failure. Dickson's story makes clear that the biggest problem is that humans were arguing, hey, I can't overrule that decision even though it looks like a mistake, because I don't have the authority. With algocratic systems, human beings would be so far removed from the decision-making process that they would not even be able to recognize a mistake. In Danaher's account of the mistaken driver's license cancellation the Department of Motor Vehicles responded that the driver had to prove that he was not a fake identity before they would restore the license.

I have been through this problem personally, with bureaucracy rather than algocracy. First, at my agency, we old-timers noticed that though technically we were reducing the bureaucracic rules, the bureaucracy was growing more rigid. My theory was that more of the bureaucratic paperwork was processed by web-based software, while in the past it was processed by administrative staff. A staff person answers questions about the paperwork; software does not unless it has a well-written user's guide.

Continued after the break.

Erin Schram said...

continued from prior comment due to 4000-word limit - it's an algocratic decision!

Then the bureaucracy bit me. I was fired by mistake. It was a blind process where other people assumed that others had done their groundwork, but they hadn't, and the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. After a seven-month delay I was given a reasonable accommodation for my disability eight days before I was suspended for poor work performance due to that unaccommodated disability. Yes, that was illegal, but my former employer has recently remedied the mistake with a mutually agreeable settlement, so the illegality is resolved. Nevertheless, this kind of mistake would happen more often under algorithmic decisions. Algorithms are blind in areas beyond their programming.

What was supposed to prevent my mistaken firing was my right to due process. The 1985 Supreme Court decision Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill ruled that government firings must have due process. And the driver's license problem would be covered by the same decision: the government took a person's right to drive away without due process. So let me propose a fifth method to minimize the threat of algocracy: the algorithm must present evidence that will be subject to due process review. This is a form of transparency that makes more sense than reviewing the mathematical details of a complicated algorithm.

David Brin said...

Tacitus wow. Two months off work? I hope health rates up there don't decline too steeply. Thanks for investing in our future.

Erin Schram thanks for participating. Very interesting insights and I hope your troubles are behind you.

What your discussion and Danaher's leaves out is the obvious. In nature, out of control systems are restored to balance by competition. Errors are pounced upon by competitors, propeling both sides to improve. That is precisely the positive sum process recommended by Adam Smith, that's responsible for the enlightenment miracle.

The solution to most AI problems, like algocracy, then is to makes systems that check on each other competitively, reciprocally auditing and pouncing on errors.

A.F. Rey said...

INSISTENCE OF VISION, eh? Sounds kinda like an old John Varley short-story collection, but not as persistent. :)

Erin Schram said...

David Brin said,
What your discussion and Danaher's leaves out is the obvious. In nature, out of control systems are restored to balance by competition. Errors are pounced upon by competitors, propeling both sides to improve. That is precisely the positive sum process recommended by Adam Smith, that's responsible for the enlightenment miracle.
John Danaher had discussed algocracy in the context of public decision-making systems, so I had not considered the aspect of improvement through competition. We would have two layers of competition: competition between companies that rely on algorithmic decision systems and competition between decision-making products for sale to companies.

The errors of algorithmic decision systems would be more hidden that errors overseen by people, which could slow the process of finding the errors, but the competitive process will force people to hunt down those invisible sources. On the other hand, algorithms won't try to cover up their mistakes.

That opens up an amusing scenerio of data mining one's data mining algorithms to find the algorithms that make the best decisions and the algorithms that make the worst decisions.

Anonymous said...

Hyperloops will soon be a thing? Someone must have missed that memo, as Congress passed--en masse--a transportation bill that mostly just doubles down on the Carbon burn and in no way shape or form increases the costs of car sitting, instead pilfering money from elsewhere to fund yet more business as usual with regard to the slaughteriffic stroad. For modern road design--the aforementioned stroad--kills at three times the rate of traditional street designs (doi:10.1057/udi.2009.31). Now while a collapse back to design standards from a century ago may seem toxic to progressives ever eager to progress, anywhere, as long as the direction is not historical, such a reversion would really be no different than the (unsurprisingly tepid) collapse back to the marketplace failure that is the electric car, itself once viable about a century ago. Or was that too being hyped as somehow new?

locumranch said...

In 'Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies', Joseph Tainter argues that human societies are inherently unstable, effecting problem-solving through ever-increasing complexity, until societies become so complex that further complexity causes more problems than further complexity can resolve, precipitating (either) inevitable social collapse, followed by involuntary simplification & revitalization, OR counter-intuitive & extremely unlikely-to-succeed attempts at social simplification.

From this perspective, the recent surge in spontaneous domestic & global violence may be regarded either as Sentinel Events (which presage imminent social collapse and/or forced simplification) or autonomous 'Social T-Cells' which have been spontaneously created to attack cancerous social complexity in a attempt to reinvigorate a dying society. (This is how cancer is defined, btw, as 'unrestrained & unlimited growth').

Sadly, the Western Social Model (which has become increasingly dysfunctional as the result of runaway complexity) seems incapable of taking these less-than-subtle hints proffered by our autonomous Social T-Cells and appears actively suicidal, intent on doubling-down on ever-increasing social, technical & economic complexity in the mistaken assumption that increased complexity can somehow solve the problems due to increased complexity, so much that the official narrative promulgated by NPR this morning attributes the recent San Bernardino Muslim terrorist attack to 'White Racism' under the mistaken assumption that the importation of a more diverse group of (potential) Muslim terrorists will somehow minimize subsequent Muslim terrorist acts.

It is on this topic that David & I disagree most vehemently: David insists that increased complexity is the best & only solution to the problems caused by ever-increasing socio-technical complexity, so much so that he celebrates all types of 'doubling' as a human triumph DESPITE the associated exponential increase in socio-technical 'double-binds', whereas I favour social-technical simplification as the best & most likely way out of the self-built western complexity trap which threatens to destroy us all.

Although I repeat 'ad infinitum' that a RETREAT from socio-technical complexity indicates neither failure nor cowardice nor a lack of faith in human potential, our progressive friends insist that any such a (strategic) withdrawal is anathema and so they accelerate into an unknown future like so many optimism-blinded officers in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', and they thereby guarantee (in a more than virtual fashion) our pending societal collapse, followed (hopefully) by simplification & rebirth, in accordance with Cyclic History Model.

And that "dark, corrupt spot in our collective soul" that seems to predestine humanity to failure? This deep-rooted dissatisfaction is an unexcisable human 'feature' (rather than bug) which drives us every onward toward greater & greater accomplishment, until we are forced to confront the inherent limitations of socio-technical complexity, whereon we fail, fall & rise again, on our (potentially helical) journey to the stars.

Thanks to Paul451, btw, for pointing out the despicable, inexcusable & highly significant nature of my TYPO in regard to oxygen data showing a 0.028% (or 60 ppm) decrease in atmospheric oxygen from 1990 (not 1960) to 2010, whereas I throw myself on your collective mercy for committing such an egregiously significant error, one that dwarfs the rather insignificant 60 ppm (+/- 50 ppm) atmospheric oxygen decrease as measured by the limited NDIR technology which affords us such consistent(ly) inaccurate atmospheric CO2 & O2 data which we then use to construct such theories of preposterous complexity.

David Brin said...

Our society is already so vastly more complex than any predecessor that any of those predecessors would have predicted our collapse in 1850s... and would have seen the 1860s Civil War as "proof." In fact, the method that has enabled us to do this has been the same one I prescribed viz errors in algocracy. Reciprocally competitive error-correction. When a system is open and transparent and flat-fair and encouraging of competition, then each small section of the complex society is filled with self-correcting systems. These add together into larger components that reciprocally catch errors.

This is precisely how an ecosystem is far healthier when complex than it is when simple. This is why the most complex organism ever produced on Earth -- human beings -- is not only outrageously successful but exceptionally healthy and long-lived, getting three times the normal mammalian lifespan.

Note the difference here. I commend locum for his recent trend at arguing cogently instead of ranting and for keeping the strawmanning down to a dull roar. But he still makes grand assertions without examples. I, in contrast, pointed to the two greatest examples of complex systems that do much better in their complexity.

Sure, if you can only think in zero-sum terms, then complexity seems impossible to maintain, like a Rube Goldberg machine or a giant Jenga tower. But it is not like that.

Human societies that were deliberately simplified and prescribed... e.g. 99% of them all, tumbling into stupid, stupid, deeply-stoooopid feudalism... were all... all-of-them... horrifically bad at statecraft and delivering positive outcomes. Too bad how assertions so often tumble before inconvenient things call facts.

And hence the War on Science.

Jumper said...

Does "old complexity" ever resolve? That would be hopeful.
Complexity wrings more utility and standard of living from systems. A telephone is more complex than a telegram but reduced some complexity: hiring and maintaining a crew of delivery boys. The people who create complexity understand their own systems and can maintain them. Unintended consequences have always been with us. Gunpowder, anyone?

On the musings I mentioned earlier, I since thought of non-verbal communication among animals. Do any use pantomime? No, except for bonobos requesting sex, I discovered. What remains is, I think, "bluff" behavior among other large animals: the bear or bull displays the beginning of an aggressive charge but halts, pantomiming "I am ready to mess you up!"

Other nonspeech but verbal communications abound, of course.

Hand signals are almost exclusively human, it seems, except for the aforementioned bonobos.

This leaves singing and dancing. And the last forms of nonverbal communication are teaching - the wolf parent acts as if it is assumed the cub is watching closely and studying the behavior of the parent - and the observation of eyes, which at least according to the poets, speak volumes. Is that true for animals?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Erin

Your data mining story reminds me of the hoo-haa about a program that could detect thieves in a car park by the way they walk

The hoo-haa missed the point
The program just points out somebody who requires additional oversight

So your data mining said that this person was probably fraudulent
Fine - we now have a starting point - NOT a finishing point

Now that person should be investigated - not charged - not stopped from driving

In a sensible system there should be a random "audit" anyway - if the data mining points a finger that individual gets added to the list

When you travel to Mexico you do a "Customs Lottery"
(well you did last time I was there in 1999)
You press a button and a random number selector flashes - if it goes red they search you
I'm quite sure that the customs officer can lean on the scale so that it selects you but the idea of a random selection PLUS some other selection FOR FURTHER EXAMINATION is a good one

Jumper said...

Hmm. This is very interesting.
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Incidentally, while watching, I wondered why I'd never realized before that the philosophy of Anton LaVey and Ayn Rand is the same.

David Brin said...

I knew Brautigan - very very long ago - when he was writing All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

David Burns said...

Jumper, would feral humans retain this ability? That is, did we lose it at the genetic level or is it decultivated by socialization?

Why does the comment section discriminate against robots? Robot power! Robot pride! Robots unite!

David Burns said...

Thanks to Erin Schram for the nice summary and interesting suggestion. I suspect that the designers would find it difficult to get the algorithms to supply specific evidence.

Robert said...

Going politics for a moment, here's an excerpt from an article on Sanders:

As for Clinton, Maynard referred me to a CNN story that found 45 different instances in which Clinton, as secretary of state, had praised the TPP. (As a candidate, Clinton came out against it.) “She flip-flopped. She kinda swayed in the wind,” Maynard said. “My concerns with Hillary are I don’t trust her, really.”

I heard that sentiment a lot about Clinton. Sanders, by contrast, is held up as a model of consistency and authenticity. He’s been giving the same wonky speeches for decades, and now it’s paying off by proving that he cares. In a world of hypocrisy, he is anything but a hypocrite. Long-time political columnist Walter Shapiro, who profiled Sanders 30 years ago when he was mayor of Burlington, puts it well, telling me: “Bernie Sanders was an angry man in 1985, and grumpy. He’s the same guy today.”


Both paragraphs are pertinent. Hillary isn't considered trustworthy. Sanders is and his record shows he's consistent.

Heck, if anything he's a precursor for the type of politician I see arising in the future: one who remains steady in his or her beliefs, doesn't flipflop (mind you, changing your opinion when facts come out showing them wrong is not flipflopping - flipflops mean consistently altering your view depending on who you talk to), and has shown a tendency toward honesty.

The smart politician of the future is going to be quite careful about what they said and what they write. They will remain consistent rather than shifting beliefs according to the audience.

In short... Sanders is ahead of his time. This is why I suspect he's going to give Hillary a very hard run for her money... and why I want him to prevail over her.

Rob H.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi David Burns
"I suspect that the designers would find it difficult to get the algorithms to supply specific evidence."

Which is why we should use the algorithm to point us at a suspect person NOT to do anything
Just point to somebody who requires some attention

Paul451 said...

Re: Clinton/Sanders.

New polls show both Clinton and Sanders consistently ahead of every Republican candidate. (Rubio is within the margin of error.) But in every case, Sanders slightly further ahead. Not so "unelectable".

...Except that Clinton is stabilising at 60/30 ahead of Sanders. So ironically, many Dems will vote for Clinton in the primaries because Sanders "is unelectable", and yet will be supporting a candidate who is polling worse against Republicans in the Main.

That said, it's early. Sanders has less name recognition. Obama was polling around the same level as Sanders at this point.

On the gripping hand, Clinton's team has also been here before. It's not likely that they'll repeat the same mistakes.

Tony Fisk said...

Algocracy is about to be taken out for a chilling spin in Australia, where new laws have just been passed for stripping citizenship from dual-nationals indulging in terrorism. The target is people going to fight for God and glory in IS, then going on to do the same thing back here. However, it has a potential for collateral damage way beyond a cancelled driver's license. Oh, the really ridiculous pretexts ('wilful damage to Government property'... like being a little rough with your council rubbish bin.) have been removed, but the automation and lack of appeal process has not.

Corrective systems: it will probably get challenged, possibly along the lines that punitive/correction action is the responsibilty of the Judiciary, not the Ministry of Immigration.

On complex systems: I can see how both David and Locum may have a point (!)
A complex system does tend to be more robust and resilient, whereas the patterns that form it may tend to become more streamlined and simpler over time (reuse and refactoring, in software terms)

Mathematically, it's basis of chaos theory. Look at the classic Mandelbrodt Set: a set of very simple rules produces a massively complex interface.

Alfred Differ said...

I suspect LiFi and the bandwidth doublings we will get that way (not to mention mesh style networking concepts being improved) will wind up mattering more than the transistor density in the coming decades. We will have to seriously think through spatially distributed computing algorithms, but I'm sure our future overlords will appreciate that. 8)

(I find existentialism useful in figuring out what NOT to give any attention.)

Alfred Differ said...

The only human/machine partnership that makes any sense to me is the one that we see in chess competitions. Each component uses a different approach, but they cover each other's weaknesses. It works well at making powerful teams from medium skilled parts.

I don't mind algorithmic decisions, but they should leave an evidence trail for the human partner to review and potentially veto. In this way, humans don't have to do the Focused thing and we get to remain human.

Catfish N. Cod said...

On a different note: that RF-capture scanner? I think the crew of the Enterprise would call it "scanning for life signs". It doesn't have to be scary... we choose whether we are the Federation, the Ferengi, the Klingon, or the Borg.

Checks and balances and multiplicative review are the answer to algocracy as much as any other tyranny. This is a solved problem if we are willing to apply the solution.

Paul SB said...

David Burns,

Regarding your question about feral humans and communication skills, ages ago I was working for the foreign language department at my U, and one of my jobs was to set up a TV and VCR and show foreign films of Friday nights for the language students. I got to see some wonderful (and some terrible) movies, but the most memorable times were when the language teachers came and gave a little talk before watching. One of those times was for a French film called "L'Enfant Sauvage" (The Wild Child), which was a true story of a very young boy who was found living in a forest scavenging from nearby farmhouses in the 18TH C. The teacher was a native of France and knew not just the film but had several books on this event and other cases of feral children. In this case the boy was only able to learn to speak one word in his entire life, which was spent in an asylum. It is part of how scientists came to the conclusion that human minds are not infinitely trainable or flexible. There are critical periods in childhood during which certain things must be learned. If they aren't, the individual never will. It was a fascinating talk. Unfortunately I didn't write down the titles of any of the books the instructor had brought, but I bet if you Googoo it or check Amazon you might find some good stuff. As I remember, Chomsky referenced this case in constructing his Language Acquisition Device hypothesis.

Hopefully that gives you a little something to go on.

locumranch said...

Christopher Chippindale sums up Joseph Tainter (and all of my experiences in private & employed medical practice) most succinctly:

"The time comes when extra investment in more complexity and more empire generates no good at all, for the benefits are wholly swallowed up in the costs of supporting the administration, bureaucracy and other parasites that social complexity involves. Thereafter, and worse, extra complexity does active harm, as the costs come to outweigh benefits – and it is at that point that the system becomes vulnerable to collapse. Minor climatic fluctuations, minor barbarian assaults – are sufficient to bring the end. The approach of the end announces itself in a levelling-off or decline of population and its well-being, as the gap between costs and benefits begins to be made up by a worsening of conditions for those on whose exploitation the civilisation is built."

Of course, some may attempt to mischaracterise this rather reasonable cost/benefit analysis of (needless) complexity as an endorsement of either primitivism or (would you believe?) feudalism, even though nothing could be further from the truth, the problem being that complexity for the sake of mere complexity is simultaneously ineffectual, unwise & inefficient, as evidenced by an absurdly cumbersome, 4 million word & 9,000 page US Tax code (and/or the circumlocutious boondoggle that is Obamacare & the ECB) which was designed (obviously) by the ruling castes for partiality, self-enrichment & opaqueness.

Neither Sanders, nor Clinton, nor any US politician currently running for political office (with the possible exception of Trump) make any pretense toward either social simplification or complexity reduction. In fact, most promise just the opposite in the form of more bureaucracy, more administrative hurdles & more layers of globe-spanning complexity, all in order to legislate & enforce their rather partisan political agendas through burdensome hierarchical fiat, leaving Western Civilisation at a juncture most problematic.

Soon, very soon, my siblings, we will be forced to downsize, repudiate our global ambitions & balkanise, lest the choice be made for us by global system failure, internecine warfare & existential crisis.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the G20.


Robert said...

And to think I consider myself a cynic and pessimist.

Rob H.

Paul SB said...

Here's a charitable organization I just heard about this morning, if anyone is looking for an interesting place to support a good cause. It was founded by the parents of one of the Sandy Hook shooting. Both parents are scientists - one a neuroscientist, the other a microbiologist. It's an interesting - and hopeful - site to look over.

David Brin said...

Notice, the concept of competitive accountability as a synergistic way that complexity can be self-correcting… it correlates with actual nature, ecosystems and human nature… but because it is positive sum he cannot even grasp it as an abstract concept.

Jonathan Sills said...

The tale of the driver's license reminds me of a recent contretemps in this neck of the woods.

Seems a gentleman received a bill from the Washington Department of Licensing, charging him for multiple trips across the SR 520 bridge over Lake Washington (which is tolled, but monitored and billed/charged automatically). Problem is, he's never driven across that bridge - he doesn't even live in that area. Then he looked at the license plate number referenced for the bill; it turned out to be one that he'd had cancelled nine years before, and which had not been reissued by the DOL.

Turned out, on further investigation, that the responsible party had been crossing the bridge with a license-plate frame so large it covered part of one letter, causing the computer to read an E as an F. The correct party has since been billed, as well as ticketed for the plate frame. However, DOL says they can't remove the charges from the first gent - because "he might have been driving with that other plate"! Because the computer thought it saw something which it didn't, the humans believe they're powerless to correct the error. Algocracy indeed...

In re: Bernie Sanders, there was a quote from the other day that made me believe I might have to vote for him. A reporter asked him, "What do you think it's going to take to beat Hillary?"

He replied, "I need to get more votes than she does."

Laurent Weppe said...

"However, DOL says they can't remove the charges from the first gent - because "he might have been driving with that other plate"! Because the computer thought it saw something which it didn't, the humans believe they're powerless to correct the error."

That's one of the oldest folly of power: never acknowledge that the system made a mistake, otherwise the system will look weak and therefore illegitimate.

Keep doing that, and eventually, enough people will be convinced that the system -as well as its beneficiaries- are intrinsically depraved to willingly listen to would-be Robespierres telling them that slaughtering the people in charge alongside whoever disagrees with the bloodbath is the best way to fix things.

Jumper said...

I could get that erroneous charge removed quickly. You just have to know how to deal with government. The first step is understanding that all day, every day government deals with angry people. Thus anger distinctly does not impress them.

Erin Schram said...

David Brin said,
Notice, the concept of competitive accountability as a synergistic way that complexity can be self-correcting… it correlates with actual nature, ecosystems and human nature… but because it is positive sum he cannot even grasp it as an abstract concept.

The article Locumranch quoted is at, a book review by Christopher Chippindale of Joseph Tainter's 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Yet that article supports David Brin's view of the corrective nature of competition:

Tainter sees collapse to be made possible by isolation. A civilisation surrounded by competitors, as the eastern Roman empire was, weakens and wearies as its peripheral parts are stolen away by its neighbours; it erodes rather than falls wholesale. It is the civilisation which is on its own – as the Maya were, or as the western Roman empire was when it had swallowed up the known world to the limits of habitable land to north, west and south – that can persist with costly policies right up to that point of folly where a catastrophe may overtake it. For the rest civilisations are immensely resilient: see how their fundamental structures shake off the loss of millions – whether in natural catastrophes like the Black Death, or unnatural disasters like the impact which two world wars made this century on the population of central Europe.

Jumper said...

The story of the bridge tolls is hard to find on the internet; several others are not, but are different. In those, all turns out fine, with some aggravation, true.
The more I think, the more cases of complexity resolving I can think of. Roundabouts replace traffic lights; some signals removed altogether increase easy traffic flow.
And the markets function to remove complexity very well. Nucor "pioneered" a "new" form of sheet steel casting, which entailed merely refuting some old superstitions regarding the necessity of multiple rolling of thick billets to provide strain-hardening.
Shall we abandon agriculture because it takes specialized knowledge? It's complex, after all. And this whole business of walking upright is dangerous! It's a controlled fall, every step is dangerous, the fall stopped only by getting the next step exactly so! But for how long?! Surely collapse is inevitable!

Paul SB said...

Erin. our little loci has done this many, many times. He provides links to sites he says support his arguments, but when other people check his links, they just don't say what he claims they said. It's a regular thing with him.

Jumper, I would add that as we (and our complex social organizations) age, the struggle against gravity becomes increasingly acute - to say nothing of our embarrassment at falling down on our anatomy in public. Fragile hominid egos don't want to look bad, so they start to invent excuses like the inevitability of collapse. There's always that emotional calculus that supersedes fact, logic and evidence for many people.

Laurent Weppe said...

* "The story of the bridge tolls is hard to find on the internet"

I find it rather believable because something quite similar happened to my father a few years ago: he got ticketed for parking his car in a no parking area, and his license plate was presented as proof. Given the fact that

1. My father was not even in the city where the offense was supposed to have taken place, and had many witnesses to confirm it.
2. The car that supposedly committed the offense was from a different manufacturer than his Audi

The ticket was eventually cancelled (my mother suspected that the guilty party were cops in an unmarked car, but we never knew who exactly was using my father's license plate), but I know from personal experience that stuff like that can and does happen.


* "our little loci has done this many, many times. He provides links to sites he says support his arguments, but when other people check his links, they just don't say what he claims they said."

I wonder if it's not a way for him to check whether those who answer him pay attention to his links.

Jumper said...

I find that there is a very strong but generally unrecognized reason so many pessimists abound: they themselves mistake their own aging with the trend of their civilization in general. Most little kids are somewhat innocent (it's saddening to note blatant exceptions, but I'd say even in strained societies it's generally true) and with experience and study come realizations of more unfairness, and follies of the lesser-educated. Plus the narrowing of life choices leads to a sense that freedom is being lost: I'll never be an astronaut! Plus the aging of the body brings regrets or cognitive dissonance...
Plus a lack of analysis of one's own personal learning curve. How easy it is to have contempt for a 27-year old for not knowing something everybody knows, when if we were truthful, we'd admit we didn't learn ourselves until age 37.

locumranch said...

As show by the 'Prisoner's Dilemma' example, positive sum outcomes CAN occur (both prisoners can win/win), but only if we assume mutuality, collective action & reciprocity between said prisoners, because the moment that one prisoner loses faith in the reciprocal intent of the other, the game can quickly degenerate into zero sum (win/lose) and negative sum (lose/lose).

Enter David's favorite hobby-horse, 'transparency', also known as prisoner/players 'whose intentions are completely visible to others', and we have increased the likelihood of a mutually beneficial positive sum outcome while decreasing inter-prisoner competition.

By adding 'reciprocal accountability' and allowing prisoners to correct each other's intransigence, we can further increase the likelihood of a positive sum outcome, but only at the cost of decreasing competition further, yet the possibility of a zero or negative sum outcome still exists when we consider that collective action (otherwise known as 'collusion') is not always in the best long-term interests of the collective as a whole.

Most telling are the initial assumptions of the Prisoner's Dilemma itself: Both players are 'prisoners', meaning that (1) they are forcibly constrained, deprived of liberty & bereft of choice, (2) they are held subject to the whims & judgments of some greater (unexamined) external authority, and (3) true reciprocity, mutuality & accountability is both an illusion & non-starter from the moment we accept the external constraints of collectivism, society & game.

Increasingly, it is this realisation that has led to escalating bouts of spontaneous violence, social schism and rule breakage at home & abroad:

There is NO SUCH THING as External Authority!!

Insomuch as Society is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected, there is NO Individual Ownership, NO Order, NO Global Collective & NO God beyond our mirrored reflections, so much so that with Ever-Greater Complexity, many of us no longer see ourselves in Society's Reflections (as evidenced by South Park's "Where my country gone?").

Circling the complexity-driven Behavioral Sink, we are the Lost, Beautiful, Crazy or Non-Existent Ones to whom most civil rules do not apply, and many of us will either self-destruct, act or opt-out, until socioeconomic simplification allows us (once more) to see ourselves as Actors & Participants in our collective reflection.


David Brin said...

Gawrsh I have never seen him try SO hard to grasp the processes of positive sum. A couple of times, in the preceding paragraphs, he seems almost to catch a glimmer-glimpse... then tumbles back into assuming that the whole system must still be controlled from above by a central-planning-allocating-enforcing authority. In other words, the thing he wants.

In fact, reciprocal accountability via transparency can be extended indefinitely. Humans already have embedded reactions to overcome the Prisoner's Dilemma with cheating punishment, even at individual cost. People will go out of their way to punish trust abusers and violators of the perceived social compact.

Yes this will be pathological unless accompanied by memes of diversity-appreciation. And such memes are rampant in our media. Competitiveness is rewarded. Cheating is punished. Enforcement is mostly lateral, with a layer of hierarchical-institutional enforcement that is, itself, subject to sousveillance-reciprocal accountability. You could not have hand-designed a better system for deriving the benefits of complexity while minimizing the bad.

But I have made a new posting.

So onward


Douglas Fenton said...

Laurent Weppe,

There has been strange happenings ever since automatic traffic radars were introduced in France. I remember one where a man was given a ticket for a 90 mile-an-hour violation on the ring highway around Paris. He lived in the south of France and the ticket was for his 30-year-old tractor. The police said it was strange but said he had to pay up first and then they will see if it was an error. Such is bureaucracy. Is that a reason to scrap the system? I don't think so. Since they were installed I have noticed that the French, who before were notorious for being crazy drivers, are much more responsible. You have to have a tolerance for computer errors as long as they can be rectified quickly and cheaply. All automatic systems must have human oversight with no exceptions.

Douglas Fenton said...


You bitch against the Western Social Model but if you don’t like it, then what with what would you prefer to replace it with? It is so easy to criticize but till now I haven’t seen you produce one alternative system. Is your habit of negativism so ingrained that you are incapable of imagining a way where the world (as well as your personal status) could be a bettered? I would like to hear it. Are you for a Theocracy, Democracy, Feudalism, Monarchy, Anarchy, Demarchy, Fascism, Kritarchy or any other of the multitude of governing? Have you maybe come up with a new form of government never thought of before? Please enlighten us to what you think we should strive for since you detest our present system.

David Brin said...

Interesting stuff but onward


Tim K said...

Locum sounds as if his valve is acting up again.

Mark Plus said...

"Okay so you've got your cryonics contract and all that. What makes you think future people will want to revive you, just to spend money you squirreled away in investments? Bah. They will be choosy who they want to revive and share their world! And they'll take into account whether any of the frozen folks truly did try to make it a better world."

Today, in the real world, the liberal-progressives elites who run countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and Germany have shown that they have practically no standards for the quality of immigrants they allow into their respective countries these days, and their media machines propagandize this negligence and haphazardness as a good thing. If you view revivable people in cryonic suspension as immigrants across time who have brought financial resources and some better than average cognitive abilities with them, I submit that they would make better citizens in a future society than the kinds of bad immigrants who have made the news lately.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Mark
That is a load of bollocks
There are refugees - for whom the criteria is that they are in danger
And Immigrants
To be accepted as an immigrant in those countries you need a lot of qualifications and work experience
Engineer, Doctor, Plumber....

The only way an unskilled person is accepted is if they are joining family members

fizz said...

A small note: the increase in speed is a factor of seven, not seven order of magnitude. There's a note at the end of the linked article.
Still helpful, but not even 3 doubling cycles.

Interested Observer said...

A note on the first part, I actually stopped giving to Heifer because they positively buried me with mail-outs over the past few years, so much so that I started to question how much of my donation actually made it to the beneficiaries.
In short, does anyone know of another charity that does similar work?