Random finds (2016, week 47) — On philosophy as antidote, the ethics of AI, and post-truth politics

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Flat-packed cabin concept allows tiny houses to be assembled like IKEA furniture (dezeen).

On Fridays, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking during the week.

On philosophy as antidote against our ‘post-truth’ society

Teaching philosophy in schools, and promoting it in society, is urgently needed to enable citizens “to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric,” the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, has said.

Speaking at a function to mark World Philosophy Day, Michael D Higgins expressed concern about an “an anti-intellectualism that has fed a populism among the insecure and the excluded.” Amid claims that we have entered a ‘post-truth’ society, he asked how we might together and individually contribute to a “reflective atmosphere in the classrooms, in our media, in our public space.”

“The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in any concerted attempt at offering a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament.” — Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland

“The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world. A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.”

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President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.

“The emergence of those digital echo-chambers in which people are not allowing themselves, their beliefs, or indeed their prejudice to be challenged, has become a matter for considerable discussion as a response to recent events in the USA and Europe. There are nowadays so many ways of accessing information on the Internet without ever coming across the informed contribution of journalism.”

According to Michael D Higgins, it’s important that “our children — all of our citizens — be encouraged to think critically rather than merely reproduce the information pushed towards them by proliferating media sources. That they learn to articulate their thoughts and provide justifications for them, and that they find ways of disagreeing without resorting to violence, whether verbal or physical.”

He added: “I believe that those virtues of reflection, of critical reasoning and of ethical enquiry are ones that have gained renewed urgency in the present moment, as humanity is faced with unprecedented challenges of a global kind — from climate change to mass migration.” (Source: Teach philosophy to heal our ‘post-truth’ society, says President Higgins, The Irish Times)

Professors of Philosophy John Kaag, left, and Martin Clancy.

In a recent Heleo Conversation, John Kaag, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Martin Clancy, also a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who is best known for his work on moral psychology, discuss the role of philosophy in the 21st century.

“I think philosophy both has a responsibility to focus our attention on very disturbing possibilities — awful thoughts like life is meaningless — but it also can be the impetus to act in the face of that, in the face of those really nasty thoughts,” John Kaag tells. “Especially in these times, I think that’s what we should be doing. We should be both be pointing out how messed up things are, and how in the face of this cultural apocalypse we can actually act as individuals.”

“I think we are entering a great golden age of philosophy. It is just beginning. I don’t know who these next philosophers will be, but I think the 21st century is going to be one of our best centuries for philosophy yet.”

“Another influence that I think is opening up philosophy right now is the meeting of Eastern and Western philosophies, and also the recognition that philosophy has more than a technical role to play. That it is reassuming, just as we’ve been talking about, its old mantle of being a social guide — but for my purposes in particular, a kind of therapeutic guide, a guide to living,” says Martin Clancy.

“I think many people within the discipline of philosophy and outside the discipline who have philosophical concerns are pressing forward for this much more robust notion of philosophy that was, of course, familiar to the ancient Greeks and that flourished in the 19th century, in particular, and also in the 20th century in the post-World War II existentialists. I feel very, very optimistic.”

On the ethics of AI

“In this industry, it’s a tired old cliche to say that we’re building the future,” writes Mike Loukides in The ethics of artificial intelligence. “But that’s true now more than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. The proliferation of personal computers, laptops, and cell phones has changed our lives, but by replacing or augmenting systems that were already in place. Email supplanted the post office; online shopping replaced the local department store; digital cameras and photo sharing sites such as Flickr pushed out film and bulky, hard-to-share photo albums. AI presents the possibility of changes that are fundamentally more radical: changes in how we work, how we interact with each other, how we police and govern ourselves.”

In his book Machines of Loving Grace, John Markoff writes, “The best way to answer the hard questions about control in a world full of smart machines is by understanding the values of those who are actually building these systems.” But, what are our values, and what do we want our values to be?

Like Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, who explores in The Partnership of the Future how humans and AI can work together to solve society’s greatest challenges, also Loukides believes we need to focus on having an intelligent discussion. “Ethics is about having an intelligent discussion,” Loukides says, “not about answers, as such — it’s about having the tools to think carefully about real-world actions and their effects, not about prescribing what to do in any situation. Discussion leads to values that inform decision-making and action.”

“AI must be designed to assist humanity: As we build more autonomous machines, we need to respect human autonomy. Collaborative robots, or co-bots, should do dangerous work like mining, thus creating a safety net and safeguards for human workers.” — Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella

“If we are unwilling to examine our prejudices, we will implement AI systems that are ‘unfair’ even if they’re statistically unbiased, merely because we won’t have the interest to examine the data on which the system is trained,” Loukides argues.

“If we are willing to live under an authoritarian government, we will build AI systems that subject us to constant surveillance: not just through Instagrams of demonstrations, but in every interaction we take part in. If we’re slaves to a fantasy of wealth, we won’t object to entrepreneurs releasing AI systems before they’re ready, nor will we object to autonomous vehicles that preferentially protect the lives of those wealthy enough to afford them.

But if we insist on open, reasoned discussion of the tradeoffs implicit in any technology; if we insist that both AI algorithms and models are open and public; and if we don’t deploy technology that is grossly immature, but also don’t suppress new technology because we fear it, we’ll be able to have a healthy and fruitful relationship with the AIs we develop. We may not get what we want, but we’ll be able to live with what we get.

[…]

We don’t need to forsee everything that might happen in the future, and we won’t have a future if we refuse to take risks. We don’t even need complete agreement on issues such as fairness, surveillance, openness, and safety. We do need to talk about these issues, and to listen to each other carefully and respectfully. If we think seriously about ethical issues and build these discussions into the process of developing AI, we’ll come out OK.”

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Manuela Veloso, Head of Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon University.

More AI in an interview with Manuela Veloso, Head of Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon University. This interview is part of THE VERGE 2021, a series of interviews with innovative leaders about what the next five years hold.

While some predict mass unemployment or all-out war between humans and artificial intelligence, others foresee a less bleak future. Professor Manuela Veloso […] envisions a future in which humans and intelligent systems are inseparable, bound together in a continual exchange of information and goals that she calls ‘symbiotic autonomy.’ In Veloso’s future, it will be hard to distinguish human agency from automated assistance — but neither people nor software will be much use without the other.

“I am a complete optimist,” says Veloso. “I think that the research we’re doing on autonomous systems — autonomous cars, autonomous robots — it’s a call to humanity to be responsible. In some sense, it has nothing to do with the technology. The technology will be developed. It was invented by us — by humans. It didn’t come from the sky from aliens. It’s our own discovery. It’s the human mind that conceived such technology, and it’s up to the human mind also to make good use of it. I have a lot of trust that this will happen.

I’m very optimistic because I really think that humanity is aware that they need to handle this technology carefully. And I am aware, too. But the best thing to do is invest in education. Leave the robots alone. The robots will keep getting better, but focus on education, people knowing each other, caring for each other. Caring for the advancement of society. Caring for the advancement of Earth, of nature, improving science. Solve all these problems. Cure cancer. End poverty. There are so many things we can get involved in as humankind that could make good use of this technology we’re developing.

In some sense, the humanism of AI will eventually be what brings us together. So, I’m optimistic.”

A bit more …

According to Art of the lie in The Economist, politicians have always lied. So, does it matter if they leave the truth behind entirely?

“But post-truth politics is more than just an invention of whingeing elites who have been outflanked. The term picks out the heart of what is new: that truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance. Once, the purpose of political lying was to create a false view of the world. The lies of men like Mr Trump do not work like that. They are not intended to convince the elites, whom their target voters neither trust nor like, but to reinforce prejudices.”

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Boris Johnson with the Vote Leave battlebus. (photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“It is tempting to think that, when policies sold on dodgy prospectuses start to fail, lied-to supporters might see the error of their ways. The worst part of post-truth politics, though, is that this self-correction cannot be relied on. When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.”

To counter post-truth politics, mainstream politicians need to find a language of rebuttal. Being called ‘pro-truth’ might be a start.

With the recent election of Donald Trump, post-truth has found a place right at the heart of U.S. politics, and it won’t go away any time soon. The deeper worry however, says The Economist, “is for countries like Russia and Turkey, where autocrats use the techniques of post-truth to silence opponents. Cast adrift on an ocean of lies, the people there will have nothing to cling to. For them the novelty of post-truth may lead back to old-fashioned oppression.”

“In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king. The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper. And those pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world.” — Jonathan Freedland, Post-truth politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are no joke

In Progress Isn’t Natural, Joel Mokyr explores why people in the past might have been hesitant to embrace the idea of progress

“The main argument against it,” he writes, “was that it implies a disrespect of previous generations. As the historian Carl Becker noted in a classic work written in the early 1930s, ‘a Philosopher could not grasp the modern idea of progress […] until he was willing to abandon ancestor worship, until he analyzed away his inferiority complex toward the past, and realized that his own generation was superior to any yet known.’ With the great voyages and the Reformation, Europeans increasingly began to doubt the great classical writings on geography, medicine, astronomy, and physics that had been the main source of wisdom in medieval times. With those doubts came a sense that their own generation knew more and was wiser than those of previous eras.”

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‘Dudley, Worcestershire,’ by William Turner (c.1832).

“The belief in progress has always had opponents, many of whom stress the costs of technological advances. In the 17th century, the Jesuit order fought tirelessly against such godless innovations as Copernican astronomy and infinitesimal mathematics. During the Industrial Revolution, many writers, following the lead of Thomas Malthus, were convinced that unrestrained population growth would undo the fruits of economic growth, a belief that still had adherents in the late 1960s. Nowadays, unsubstantiated fears of monstrosities created by genetic engineering (including, God forbid, smarter people, drought-resistant crops, and mosquitoes that don’t transmit malaria) threaten to slow down research and development in crucial areas, including coping with climate change. Progress, as was realized early on, inevitably entails risks and costs. But the alternative, then as now, is always worse”

At The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman says hindsight affects decision making:

“What hindsight does is it blinds us to the uncertainty with which we live. That is, we always exaggerate how much certainty there is. Because after the fact, everything is explained. Everything is obvious. And the presence of hindsight in a way mitigates against the careful design of decision making under conditions of uncertainty.”

“The failure to get to grips with our crises, by all mainstream political parties, is likely to lead to a war between the major powers in my lifetime,” George Monbiot writes on the opinion pages in The Guardian.

“[…] as the French writer Paul Arbair notes in the most interesting essay I have read this year, beyond a certain level of complexity economies become harder to sustain. There’s a point at which further complexity delivers diminishing returns; society is then overwhelmed by its demands and breaks down. He argues that the political crisis in western countries suggests we may have reached this point.”

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Illustration by Andrzej Krauze (The Guardian).

“A complete reframing of economic life is needed not just to suppress the existential risk that climate change presents, but other existential threats as well — including war. Today’s governments, whether they are run by Trump or Obama or May or Merkel, lack the courage and imagination even to open this conversation. It is left to others to conceive of a more plausible vision than trying to magic back the good old days. The task for all those who love this world and fear for our children is to imagine a different future rather than another past.”

“As there are growing signs that we might be in a crisis of complexity caused by rising biophysical constraints and characterised by diminishing returns of investments in societal complexity, we are entering an era when circumstances will trump personalities and institutions. What we now need, hence, is not so much to find new political ‘leaders’ capable of designing and enacting grand plans to lead us further up the complexity pathway, but to ensure that we can make collective choices that are fit and appropriate for an age of scaling-down expectations. There is no sign that this could happen anytime soon, or even that it might be possible. It is therefore entirely reasonable to expect that our economic, technical, political and social systems might continue to become increasingly dysfunctional and drift towards breakup point. The journey to that point will probably continue to leave most of us puzzled, and will most likely be filled with the disturbing clamour of populist caudillos.” — Paul Arbair in #Brexit, the populist surge and the crisis of complexity

A vertical, concrete university campus in Lima, Peru, by Grafton Architects has been named world’s best new building by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Described as an exceptional example of civil architecture, the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) is the first ever winner of the RIBA International Prize. According to the jury, the architects have created a new way to think about a university campus — its distinctive vertical campus structure responding to the temperate climatic conditions and referencing Peru’s terrain and heritage.

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Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, UTEC (photograph by Iwan Baan, dezeen).

“The concept of a vertical campus defies convention, as does the mix of open and enclosed spaces, but both are key to the success of this building visually and spatially,” says RIBA president Jane Duncan. (Source: dezeen)

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Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, UTEC (photograph by Iwan Baan, dezeen).

In TITANPOINTE — The NSA’s Spy Hub in New York, Hidden in Plain Sight, Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke describe the possible surveillance roles of building ‘Project-X,’ an AT&T owned property in Manhattan, sitting on top of some major telephone and communication switches.

“The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a ‘20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”

It isn’t clear how many people actually work at 33 Thomas Street, but the original plans stated that it would provide food, water, and recreation for 1,500 people. The building would also store 250,000 gallons of fuel to power generators, which would enable it to become a ‘self-contained city’ for two weeks in the event of an emergency power failure. The blueprints for the building show that it was to include three subterranean levels, including a cable vault, where telecommunications cables likely entered and exited the building from under Manhattan’s bustling streets.

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The FBI occupies the entire 23rd floor of 26 Federal Plaza, seen here behind 33 Thomas Street.

Some of the original architectural drawings for 33 Thomas Street are labeled ‘Project X.’ It was alternatively referred to as the Broadway Building. His plans describe the structure as “a skyscraper to be inhabited by machines” and say that it was “designed to house long lines telephone equipment and to protect it and its operating personnel in the event of atomic attack.”

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Sketch of the plaza at 33 Thomas Street.

Gallagher and Moltke’s article in The Intercept inspired Peter Vander Auwera to write his very personal Skyscrapers inhabited by machines.

“Deep in my (un)consciousness, there is the fear for this shoestring poverty. That we’ll have to hide again in the coldness and humidity of bunkers in the polders. A dystopian threat of dark secrecy, manipulation, corruption and a fundamental loss of trust. That is what bunkers and secret buildings do to me. Even if they are just architectural models that are not intended to be build.”

Like the ones designed by the young artist from Flanders, Belgium, Renato Nicolodi. These are “mausoleums that have a place in the memories of his grandfather, who spent the Second World War in various prisoner of war camps, which he meticulously describes in the conversations Renato argued with him. The recordings of those calls still are daily source of inspiration for Renato.”

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Pulpitum II, by Renato Nicolodi, 2012.

“The new models don’t seem to be intended for humans, they are intended to host machines. How can we reclaim back our humanity?” — Peter Vander Auwera

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