Random finds (2017, week 43) — On how AI might take over the world, Big Data meets Big Brother, and the new urban crisis
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
How AI might take over the world
In The Last Invention of Man, an excerpt from his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, physicist Max Tegmark imagines how AI might take over the world.
“The Omega Team was the soul of the company,” Tegmark writes. “Whereas the rest of the enterprise brought in the money to keep things going, by various commercial applications of narrow AI, the Omega Team pushed ahead in their quest for what had always been the CEO’s dream: building general artificial intelligence. Most other employees viewed ‘the Omegas,’ as they affectionately called them, as a bunch of pie-in-the-sky dreamers, perpetually decades away from their goal. They happily indulged them, however, because they liked the prestige that the cutting-edge work of the Omegas gave their company, and they also appreciated the improved algorithms that the Omegas occasionally gave them.
What they didn’t realize was that the Omegas had carefully crafted their image to hide a secret: They were extremely close to pulling off the most audacious plan in human history. Their charismatic CEO had handpicked them not only for being brilliant researchers, but also for ambition, idealism, and a strong commitment to helping humanity. He reminded them that their plan was extremely dangerous, and that if powerful governments found out, they would do virtually anything — including kidnapping — to shut them down or, preferably, to steal their code. But they were all in, 100 percent, for much the same reason that many of the world’s top physicists joined the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons: They were convinced that if they didn’t do it first, someone less idealistic would.”
“The AI they had built, nicknamed Prometheus, kept getting more capable. Although its cognitive abilities still lagged far behind those of humans in many areas, for example, social skills, the Omegas had pushed hard to make it extraordinary at one particular task: programming AI systems. They’d deliberately chosen this strategy because they had bought the intelligence explosion argument made by the British mathematician Irving Good back in 1965: ‘Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an intelligence explosion, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.’
They figured that if they could get this recursive self-improvement going, the machine would soon get smart enough that it could also teach itself all other human skills that would be useful.”
What follows is an entertaining and provocative tale that seeks to facilitate a much wider conversation about what kind of future we, as a species, would want to create.
In his review of Life 3.0, Yuval Noah Harari writes that Tegmark “bumps up against the limits of present-day political debates. The AI revolution turns many philosophical problems into practical political questions and forces us to engage in ‘philosophy with a deadline’ (as the philosopher Nick Bostrom called it). Philosophers have been arguing about consciousness and free will for thousands of years, without reaching a consensus. This mattered little in the age of Plato or Descartes, because in those days the only place you could create superintelligences was in your imagination. Yet in the 21st century, these debates are shifting from philosophy faculties to departments of engineering and computer science. And whereas philosophers are patient people, engineers are impatient, and hedge fund investors are more restless still. When Tesla engineers come to design a self-driving car, they cannot wait while philosophers argue about its ethics.
Consequently Tegmark soon leaves behind familiar debates about the job market, privacy and weapons of mass destruction, and ventures into realms that hitherto were associated with philosophy, theology and mythology rather than politics. This can hardly be avoided. For the creation of superintelligent AI is an event on a global or even cosmic rather than a national level. For 4bn years life on Earth evolved according to the laws of natural selection and organic chemistry. Now science is about to usher in the era of non-organic life evolving by intelligent design, and such life may well eventually leave Earth to spread throughout the galaxy. The choices we make today may have a profound impact on the trajectory of life for countless millennia and far beyond our own planet.”
“Technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. In the 21st century, AI will open up an even wider spectrum of possibilities. Deciding which of these to realise may well be the most important choice humankind will have to make in the coming decades.” — Yuval Noah Harari
“Though Tegmark is probably correct in taking things to this cosmic level, I fear that many, if not most, of his prospective readers will not follow him there. Our political systems, and indeed our individual minds, are just not built to think on such a scale. Current political mechanisms barely manage to make decisions on the scale of decades — how can they make decisions on the scale of millennia? Who has time to worry about AI taking over the planet when you have to deal with Donald Trump and Brexit?
In the case of the AI revolution, as so often before in human history, we will probably make the most profound decisions on the basis of myopic short-term considerations. The future of life on Earth will be decided by small-time politicians spreading fears about terrorist threats, by shareholders worried about quarterly revenues and by marketing experts trying to maximise customer experience.”
Big Data meets Big Brother
The Chinese government plans to launch its Social Credit System in 2020. The aim? To judge the trustworthiness — or otherwise — of its 1.3 billion residents, writes Rachel Botsman in Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens. Again a long read, this time from Botsman’s upcoming book Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart.
“Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school — or even just your chances of getting a date.
A futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control? No, it’s already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance ‘trust’ nationwide and to build a culture of ‘sincerity.’ As the policy states, ‘It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.’”
“Under this system, something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. ‘Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,’ says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director. ‘Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.’ So the system not only investigates behaviour — it shapes it. It ‘nudges’ citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.”
“The new system reflects a cunning paradigm shift. As we’ve noted, instead of trying to enforce stability or conformity with a big stick and a good dose of top-down fear, the government is attempting to make obedience feel like gaming. It is a method of social control dressed up in some points-reward system. It’s gamified obedience.” — Rachel Botsman
“Where these systems really descend into nightmarish territory is that the trust algorithms used are unfairly reductive. They don’t take into account context. For instance, one person might miss paying a bill or a fine because they were in hospital; another may simply be a freeloader. And therein lies the challenge facing all of us in the digital world, and not just the Chinese. If life-determining algorithms are here to stay, we need to figure out how they can embrace the nuances, inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in human beings and how they can reflect real life.”
“When I tell westerners about the Social Credit System in China, their responses are fervent and visceral. Yet we already rate restaurants, movies, books and even doctors. Facebook, meanwhile, is now capable of identifying you in pictures without seeing your face; it only needs your clothes, hair and body type to tag you in an image with 83 per cent accuracy.
So are we heading for a future where we will all be branded online and data-mined? It’s certainly trending that way. Barring some kind of mass citizen revolt to wrench back privacy, we are entering an age where an individual’s actions will be judged by standards they can’t control and where that judgement can’t be erased. The consequences are not only troubling; they’re permanent. Forget the right to delete or to be forgotten, to be young and foolish.
While it might be too late to stop this new era, we do have choices and rights we can exert now. For one thing, we need to be able rate the raters. In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly describes a future where the watchers and the watched will transparently track each other. ‘Our central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon — or a mutual, transparent kind of ‘coveillance’ that involves watching the watchers,’ he writes.
Our trust should start with individuals within government (or whoever is controlling the system). We need trustworthy mechanisms to make sure ratings and data are used responsibly and with our permission. To trust the system, we need to reduce the unknowns. That means taking steps to reduce the opacity of the algorithms. The argument against mandatory disclosures is that if you know what happens under the hood, the system could become rigged or hacked. But if humans are being reduced to a rating that could significantly impact their lives, there must be transparency in how the scoring works.”
“It is still too early to know how a culture of constant monitoring plus rating will turn out. What will happen when these systems, charting the social, moral and financial history of an entire population, come into full force? How much further will privacy and freedom of speech (long under siege in China) be eroded? Who will decide which way the system goes? These are questions we all need to consider, and soon. Today China, tomorrow a place near you. The real questions about the future of trust are not technological or economic; they are ethical.
If we are not vigilant, distributed trust could become networked shame. Life will become an endless popularity contest, with us all vying for the highest rating that only a few can attain.”
The new urban crisis
“When Richard Florida coined the term ‘creative class’ in 2002, he painted a very clear picture for urban revitalization. His book The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life, almost reads like a textbook for mayors. All cities had to do was lure a few artists into live-work lofts in an old warehouse district, maybe convince a startup — they weren’t even called startups then, were they? — to set up shop in a post-industrial neighborhood. Voila! Florida’s prescription for city success,” Alissa Walker wrote in Richard Florida’s ‘The New Urban Crisis’ looks at where cities went wrong.
In his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida looks at how the decisions of that creative class ended up affecting everyone else — especially people who were forced out of those cities. According to Sam Wetherell in Richard Florida Is Sorry, it can be seen as a mea culpa. He admits right away that he has been “overly optimistic,” encouraging a particular paradigm without anticipating the consequences of his ideas. But it turns out that looking at what happened to the creative class after they urbanized is actually a good way to roadmap rising inequality.
“[Florida] argued that an influx of what he called the ‘creative classes’ — artists, hipsters, tech workers — were sparking economic growth in places like the Bay Area. Their tolerance, flexibility, and eccentricity dissolved the rigid structures of industrial production and replaced them with the kinds of workplaces and neighborhoods that attracted more young people and, importantly, more investment.” But “[t]he rise of the creative class in places like New York, London, and San Francisco created economic growth only for the already rich, displacing the poor and working classes. The problems that once plagued inner cities have moved to the suburbs,” says Wetherell.
“Setting aside the rhetoric of innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, we can locate something ironically Marxist about Florida’s ideas: human beings are fundamentally creative, which is the source of economic value, and people become alienated when they cannot control the fruits of their creativity. […] But Florida’s writing narrows human potential. His theory of art and creativity only acknowledges its contribution to economic growth. The insistence on tolerance’s benefits has a similarly utilitarian purpose: we should celebrate diverse communities, not for their own sake but because they spur innovation.”
“[In his new book] even the traditional idea of ‘city’ is being replaced — by a new structure that Florida dubs the ‘patchwork metropolis.’ This acknowledges the regional distribution of Americans to the ‘urban burbs’ and beyond. Just after his book came out, in an attempt to prove his allegiance to this New Regionalism, Florida penned an op-ed with Joel Kotkin, a writer with whom Florida has been at odds in the past (you might call Kotkin a suburbanist). Florida and Kotkin argue that a nationwide movement for local engagement would be better for the residents of both cities and suburbs — and for diffusing the growing red-blue divide. (Although Kotkin more recently wrote his own op-ed accusing city-dwellers of ‘blue snobbery,’ which forces their way of life upon the rest of a country that doesn’t want anything to do with them.)” — Alissa Walker in Richard Florida’s ‘The New Urban Crisis’ looks at where cities went wrong
Now, after a decade and a half of development plans tailored to the creative classes, Florida surveys an urban landscape in ruins. “When the rich, the young, and the (mostly) white rediscovered the city, they created rampant property speculation, soaring home prices, and mass displacement. The ‘creative class’ were just the rich all along, or at least the college-educated children of the rich,” Wetherell writes.
Yet he believes, “Florida was right when he said the ‘creative economy’ is the new way of the world. But its development didn’t happen how he imagined. Rather than launching humanity into a new phase of prosperity, the new economy simply holds the different elements of late capitalism together — making it palatable for some but deepening its crises and contradictions for others.”
Also: How Innovation Leads to Economic Segregation, by Richard Florida (CityLab), and ‘Everything is gentrification now’: but Richard Florida isn’t sorry, by the Guardian’s architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright.
And also this …
“It’s rare that you’d compare a factory to a fine yacht, but at Vitsœ’s new Royal Leamington Spa factory, the two are synonymous,” writes Mark Wilson.
“The resulting building is a mash-up between a piece of furniture and a boat. Though it’s actually smaller than many of the yachts that [marine architect and super-yacht designer Martin Francis] has designed, you can see the nautical influence across the building’s walls and ceiling. Much like the wooden slats of a ship’s hull, laminate-veneer lumbermakes up the inner walls, ceiling, and beams. The joints supporting it are mechanical though, much like you might see on a desk.
Functionally, the 442-foot-long interior is intended to be rearranged and restaged modularly, just like the 606 storage system itself. […] However, the real beauty of the space is created by all of the light. Despite that it’s a factory, which requires high brightness for workers, the space is entirely lit by the sun during the day, even when skies are overcast, thanks to a variegating roof of skylights that provide a consistent 1,000 lux. That’s a typical outdoor light level, inside.
The same dream of working outside while indoors was shared by the now-defunct Google campus design by BIG and Thomas Heatherwick, which featured a clear fabric frame to create the feeling. Is it rude to say I prefer the austere implementation of wood and glass over the circus tent aesthetic?”
“In Helsinki, like many cities, there isn’t enough housing to keep up with demand. Some people blame a lack of land to build new housing, but one design firm argues that there is enough land–if you know where to look. The firm’s new building is designed to fit in a single parking spot,” Adele Peters writes on FastCompany.
“‘The city is not designed because of humans–it’s designed because of cars,’ says architect Marco Casagrande, principal at the Helsinki-based Casagrande Laboratory, which designed the new tiny house. ‘All the streets in cityscapes are based on car dimensions. This I found a little bit strange. We have all this talk about the density of cars getting less and less in cities, and at the same time, we are talking about people moving into cities but we don’t have space to build. Nobody has been questioning car parking spaces. They are everywhere. So this talk about no land to build in cities is nonsense: It’s everywhere, but it’s just for cars.’”
“[…] civic crowdfunding on its own is not going to transform the way local government operates. But it is part of a patchwork of many overlapping processes that leave lines of accountability blurred and reflects the wider erosion of representative democracy.” — Anna Minton in Civic crowdfunding is privatisation masquerading as democracy