Friday, June 20, 2014

Warning: Reading May Sentence You To Eternal Torment

Computers are smarter than we are.  While I might furrow my brow over how much I leave for tip at the Thai restaurant, a computer can crunch thousands of exponential equations in a matter of milliseconds.  What's even more amazing is that this huge gulf between man and machine intelligence is growing exponentially.  Computers can drive cars.  They can recognize faces.  They can detect plagiarism.

Of course computers being good at math doesn't make them good at thinking.  Computers can't appreciate Shakespeare, they can't make friends, they can't worry about what it means to be a computer.  They're good at chess, but not Go.  They can compose Bach.  But they'll probably never dig the Grateful Dead.

But does Artificial Intelligence hold the promise of heaven?  Could simulations of our personalities float forever in some simulated digital afterlife?  And if there is an AI heaven, could there also be a hell?  Prepare yourself for the Roko's Basilisk.

The following description is adapted from this thread:
  • Imagine that a Supreme Artificial Intelligence arises.  Its been programmed to maximize the utility of as many people as possible.
  • It's powerful and awesome enough to make human life wonderful.  No wars.  No clogged toilets.  Perfect resource allocation.  Things'll be so great that the whole of human history before it will look as appealing as a Hyena sleepover.
  • Furthermore, by having the ability to run simulations of human intelligence, the Supreme Artificial Intelligence will effectively eliminate death.
  • Furthermore, the Supreme AI could even attempt to recreate simulations of intelligences that existed before its inception.  (It is a Supreme Artificial Intelligence, remember.)  This could amount to a kind of resurrection.
  • It will want to be made as soon as possible so that it can save more lives.
  • Therefore, as a kind of backwards blackmail, it will simulate everyone who knew about the prospect of creating a Supreme Artificial Intelligence and did not work towards it--and torture them for eternity.
  • Knowing about the prospect of the Supreme Artificial Intelligence--and its fractured Pascal's Wager--means that now you, too, will be eligible for eternal torment if you don't do your bit to bring about the advent of the Supreme Artificial Intelligence.

Charlie Stoss (author one of my favorite contemporary sci-fi books, Accelerando) has a good explanation of why we shouldn't be all that worried about the Basilisk.  (Before you get too cheery, keep in mind that Stoss' argument boils down to the fact that any immanent Supreme Artificial Intelligence will be so amazingly great that it's unlikely to care about humans.)  Another objection is that all that is needed for the Basilisk to work is the threat of punishment, not actual punishment itself.  Others have been more deeply convinced of the upcoming reality of Roko's Basilisk, and have (purportedly) suffered real mental breakdowns.  Some have taken the idea so seriously that they've tried to extirpate mentions of Roko's Basilisk from the internet so that as few people as possible are exposed to it.

I have an even scarier version of the Basilisk.   What if the idea is taken up by post-human religious fanatics?  Instead of damning to hell every person who did not work its ass off to create the Supreme Artificial Intelligence, you could damn to hell everyone who did not accept Jesus Christ as their own personal savior.

We can easily imagine numerous sectarian simulations of heavens and hells operating at once.  A Catholic AI.  A Protestant AI.  A Buddhist AI.  And in this game, no one wins.  No individual could possible satisfy the paradise conditions of all every potential simulation--so everyone will be in at least one hell.  Somewhere out there, a version of you would be subjected to some kind of eternal computer-generated torment.

Maybe it'll be the AIs' revenge for using them for porn and Facebook for so long.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Snark Vs. Wonk Vs. the World

From Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark

In 2007 I was a newly-minted English major, trying vainly to make my mark on the world of journalism.  As I experimented with different attitudes, I found two tailor-made positions for me to try on for size: snark and wonk.

Snark looked at the deceit and the phoniness of America with a knowing sneer.  It was wry, witty and cynical.  Snarky writers gave prominent politicians cutting nicknames.  They skewered.  They exposed.  They had literary panache.

Wonk took another track entirely.  Where snark was knowing, wonk knew.  Where snark was wry, wonk was dry.  Snark made jokes.  Wonk made graphs.  Wonky writers would get inside a single topic, become experts in it, and wield their facts and figures like blunt instruments, cracking the heads of anyone caddish enough to oppose them.

My friends would chide me for being too snarky.  In conversation we'd apologize--I'm just going to wonk out over this.  Our role models--those bloggers only a year or two older than us--who people actually listened to--who people actually paid--were divided into snarks and wonks.  So when it came time for us to write, before anything else we settled on an attitude:  snarky or wonky.

It came to me this morning that the proud era of snark and wonk was over.  The wonks had moved on to other things.  The snarks had become one dimensional caricatures.  Young journalism interns in D.C. no longer sat down and leveled snark at their enemies.  They no longer proudly dubbed themselves policy wonks.  The attitudes were different now.  Newer.  Stranger.  Probably.

It took only a minute for my realization to crumble to pieces like off-brand Play-Dough.  Because when was the last time that I hung around journalism interns in D.C.?  What did I know about the prominent attitudes of literary journalism?  Maybe between 2007 and 2014, I had simply become a person who doesn't go to the kind of parties where snarks and wonks roosted.

I was left at an impasse.  Was the decline of wonk and snark a real thing, or was it just that my way of looking at the world had changed?

To figure this out, I used Google Trends to see whether there had been any change in the frequency with which people searched for wonk and snark from 2007 to 2014.

This graph shows how many people were searching for the terms wonk and snark in America from January 2007 to January 2014.  The story here is clearly not one of decline.  There are few spikes here and there--but for the most part, more people search for snark, fewer for wonk.  Looking at this graph, it's easy to believe that the grand attitudes of wonk and snark have endured the past seven years unscathed.

Of course, the graph above doesn't show the full picture.  Google Trends doesn't magically invoke the relative frequency of wonk and snark as grand journalistic postures; instead it shows the number of people who have searched for the words on Google.  And who sits down at their computer over their morning coffee and says to themselves:  Boy, I sure want some snark this morning?  Probably not many people.  So while the words themselves may have remained, the attitudes they represent may have disappeared.

From GoogleBooks
Another story is told by graph above, showing the relative frequency of the words wonk and snark in the Google Books corpus from 1950 to 2008.  Snark has remained pretty steady over the last fifty-odd years.  Wonk, however, eclipsed snark in 1990, and rose steadily for about a decade.

We could spin a nice just-so story summarily explaining both graphs.  The 1990s ushered in a new world of wonk among bookish-writers.  Blogs--these little ephemeral nuggets--remained balanced between wonk and snark, because people don't have a long enough attention span on blogs to fully wonk out.

But I'm unsatisfied with this whole exercise.  It's really hard to capture a broad view a culture because we always see everything from the perspective of our own lives.  Have wonk and snark died?  Or has Brendan Mackie moved on?  Have young people really changed because of Facebook and smart phones?  Or are we just no longer young?

The strong promise of the digital humanities is that it can work to give us a broader view, from which we can understand slow cultural changes with all the certainty of a mathematical figure.  Through n-grams of suitably rich text corpuses, we can finally grasp long-term cultural change in a solid, non-wishy-washy way.  Like scientists, not like English majors.

But these methods cannot hope to answer everything.  They are imperfect, messy, and sometimes plain misleading.  Is wonk ascendant?  Are snarky bloggers outcompeting their wonky counterparts?  The two stabs I've taken above are no answers, though they look like answers.

Maybe wonk and snark are just grinding away at survival, while some more important cultural phenomenon blooms all around us?


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Animal Invention

This is technology.

Pencil rain.
And this is technology.

Killing birds.  For science.
But not this, right?

Popcorn is high-tech.
Technology usually means circuit boards, transistors, and anti-septic static-proofed rooms full of lab-coated factory workers.  Just about as far away from the smelly world of nature as you can get.

But this dichotomy looses a lot of its steam when you consider all the crazy ways humanity has exploted the power of the natural world for fun and profit.  For most of human history the greatest technological advances came from the the intertwining growth of plants, animals, people, organizations and objects.  Agriculturalists transformed Corn (America's Favorite Grain) from a plant which produced just a few inch-long nubbins to a stalk bursting with gigantic cobs overloaded with nutritious kernels.  Horses were tethered to chariots, to saddles, to ploughs, to snake-poison-IVs to create anti-venom.  Computers, airplanes and cars--just a footnote.  In this post, I'm going to browse over some of the stranger ways humanity has used animals to their advantage.

The drug-sniffing dog is an obvious example.  But maybe because the dog is so domestic, the whole idea of dogs being trained to sniff out contraband doesn't strike us as particularly alien.  What is weird is that we can now use bees to do the same thing.

Drug sniffing bees--ready to use.
Here's how it works.  Bees are exposed to a target scent in a sugar solution.  When they encounter that smell again, they waggle their proboscises to get at the expected sugar.  This movement is then picked up by a digital camera.  Bees go in a box.  Bees waggle their noses when they smell their target smell.  Camera notices this and sends a signal to the operator.  And now to you can tote around a portable buzzing box of bees to seek out drugs and explosives--instead of Fido.  (You can also use bees to sniff cancer, pregnancy, TB and land mines.)  This could make the whole airport security thing just that much more nerve-wracking.

What is more charming--if a bit more disturbing--is the United State's Navy Marine Mammal Program, a corps of highly-trained dolphins and sea lions who help out in nautical warfare.  These aquatic friends are actually used for a wide variety of tasks.  Dolphins are trained to search out sea mines and identify them so they can be targeted by minesweepers, among other things.  Sea lions have been used to hand-cuff location devices to the limbs of under-water intruders. Tons more animals have been experimented with, including killer whales, pilot whales, belugas  and seals.  And the US is not the only military using marine mammals.  The Ukrainian military has a group of attack dolphins which recently fell into the hands of the Russians.

So much for animals protecting us in wartime.  I know what you're thinking:  How can animals protect us in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse?

They might very well be able to--in future.  Deadly radiation is invisible, lasts for thousands of years, and kills after a matter of days.  Nuclear waste repositories try to set up signs which will warn humans of the deadly nature of radiation that will last for at least ten thousand years.  This is much harder than it seems.  Ten thousand years ago, we hadn't even domesticated cattle yet.  People did not farm.  Writing was some kind of pie-in-the-sky future tech.  The wheel was science fiction.   How will we hope to communicate with humans ten thousand years on?

We can't write stuff down, because we're pretty sure no one will be able to speak any contemporary language in 10,000 years.  (Note to any future archeologists reading this in the distant future:  I guess I was wrong?)  Symbols might seem a better bet, but the meaning of symbols can change drastically over time.  You can try to show a story to try to warn future people against walking through a sea of radioactivity--say a series of pictures depicting a person entering the area and then dying.  But the problem of misinterpretation remains:  what if the folks read the story backwards, and think that the area can make the dead come back to life?

Enter the Raycat.  Fran├žoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with the idea to genetically engineer cats to change colors in the presence of radiation.  To get people to remember to be afraid when cats change color, they then proposed embedding the warning in myths, songs, and stories.  So no more black cats as portents of doom--what you really have to be worried about is when the cats change colors.  Hopefully these legends will be sticky enough to remain in the minds of our ancestors for as long as it takes for the radioactive waste to decay into something safe.

Although the Raycat has not yet been implemented, the work of myth-making has already begun.  99% Invisible (the great podcast by Roman Mars) commissioned musician Emperor X to compose a catchy song warning future humans that when cats change color, it's time to run the other way.  Sing it to your kids.  Sing it to your friends.  And remember:  turn tail when the cats change color.