Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Google AI moderation

Glenn Reynolds links to this excerpt of a Glenn Beck interview of Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen about artificial intelligence and related topics. Reynolds expresses surprise that Beck is so interested and knowledgeable on the subject; I have pointed out his interest, and its internal tensions, previously. In the excerpt, Schmidt does all the answering, and has what seems to me a rather measured and thoughtful view of things, including skepticism about (now Google employee) Ray Kurzweil's timeline of when things will happen.

For some recent AI-related posts, see here, here, here and here. And more here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book note: The Furies

Mark Alpert, former colleague from Scientific American whose books I've mentioned before, has a new novel coming out: The Furies: A Thriller. I'm ordering it now, and if you do so through the links in this post, I may earn a small portion of the resulting revenues. I'm intrigued by the prospect of fiction that mixes some biology into themes normally relegated to the supernatural or paranormal; the Underworld movies, with their genetically mutated vampires and werewolves, took such a tack but did so a bit crudely and superficially. Mark was the sort of writer whose nonfiction didn't need much fact checking, and so is a very good bet for making a real-science-of-witchcraft type story work.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Art therapy traction

Dan Summer, art therapist extraordinaire and contributor to this blog, was featured in a recent Fox News story about his field and its growing importance. Take a look.

UPDATE 2/24: No longer on YouTube, it seems, but still viewable at link above.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hackers vs AI [updated]

The always interesting Edward Tenner has some thoughts at The American on "Could Computers Get Too Smart?" He writes in response to James Barrat's Our Final Invention, which I reviewed recently, and the gist of Tenner's piece is that there are some reasons you shouldn't worry too much about the dangers posed by out-of-control AI. He makes the intriguing observation that the vulnerability of computers to hacking is a point against the grim scenarios Barrat and others have outlined. Now, one could take a darker view there, saying that hackers getting into advanced AI is the sort of thing we ought to worry about; but it's important to recognize that the news isn't all bad.

UPDATE: For more on the future of technology, see these responses to a recent paper by economist Robert Gordon, in which bloggers take Gordon to task for underestimating what automation is going to achieve in the next few decades. I find not particularly compelling Matthew Yglesias's deployment of exponential growth, as illustrated by the old Persian chessboard story, to argue for massive imminent advances. That chessboard was an abstraction on which you could put an incredible amount of wheat on a square. In the real world, even if you can keep doubling your wheat production as you pile it on one chess square after another, your towering pile of wheat will fall over. You'll also run out of chess squares. The real world has limits, and the interesting, unknown question in computing is what they are.

UPDATE 2: "How the rise of smart machines will affect the US economy and jobs: A Q&A with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee." I long assumed technology would always produce more jobs than it eliminated, which is one of many longtime ideological assumptions I've come to doubt in the last years. However, if as they suggest is plausible, technology drives the workforce toward more flexible and part-time work arrangements, my technophilia might get back on the upswing.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Robots, Downton Abbey, etc.

A couple of misc. notes on items of interest:

-- In Slate there's a piece on "Why Watson is real artificial intelligence," by Miles Brundage and Joanna Bryson, written as a rejoinder to Douglas Hofstadter's "Why Watson and Siri Are Not Real AI," in Popular Mechanics. Why the rejoinder doesn't discuss Siri I'm not sure, and there's an element of semantic quibbling in discussing what constitutes "real AI." Still, I don't think Brundage and Bryson adequately rebut Hofstadter's argument, which is that the programs in question don't understand the meaning of the questions with which they're grappling. The critics cite Daniel Dennett in making the point that intelligence arises from numerous sub-intelligent parts, but the more important point Hofstadter is making is that in current-day AI the parts have not been arranged in such a way as to constitute an entity that actually knows or cares what it's talking about or that it even exists.

-- Castigating "Downton Abbey" for sugar-coating Edwardian* labor relations has been a left-liberal cause and is becoming a right-libertarian one with this Megan McArdle piece (and this gloss on it by Instapundit). I think the show does a decent job of conveying that not every employer of the time was as generally benevolent as the Crawleys, and I am impressed by this Foreign Affairs piece in which Jeremy Musson discusses some ways in which the series' depictions of servant life do have veracity. Bear in mind that the people working in a house like that would have had a set of alternative options in mind that also were not necessarily desirable from a 21st-century middle-class perspective.

* - Added: and post-Edwardian

-- Something to look forward to: man-versus-machine ping pong.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Backlashes against immigrants and robots [updated]

Tyler Cowen writes about "Why cosmopolitanism is utopian but useful nonetheless." The subject is Switzerland's recent vote to restrict EU immigration, and Cowen is writing in response to a post by Bryan Caplan that argued (based on Swiss voting patterns) that the way to overcome anti-immigration sentiment is through more immigration. Cowen thinks very high levels of immigration will spur a backlash, and so it's better to be open to immigration on a marginal, moderate basis.

I agree with Cowen. I grew up in the highly ethnically diverse area of Elmhurst, Queens, with immigrants from throughout Asia and Latin America, and got an up-close view of plenty of ethnic tensions, in multiple directions. Knowing many people from other countries may have made some people more cosmopolitan in some ways, but it was hardly an invariable or universal reaction.

Backlashes, it seems to me, are an underrated phenomenon. Predictions of technological transformation, for instance, tend to edit out the tremendous fear and loathing that will be precipitated by such developments (even if they are basically benign; witness genetically modified foods). Seeing that the world you're going to grow old in has little in common with the one you grew up in, whether because of immigrants or robots or whatever, will spark a strong reaction, and often not a positive one especially if one's job security seems diminished, and the assurances of elites that it's all beneficial or inevitable can produce some notably angry dissension.

UPDATE 2/15: Tyler Cowen's co-blogger Alex Tabarrok takes him to task for not being willing to "launch a revolution" in the cause of open borders, and for failing to recognize a historical lesson that great things can be done when you have the moral high ground. I find Tabarrok's historical analogies rather overstated, in that eliminating immigration restrictions does not, to me at least, carry anything remotely like the moral weight of eliminating slavery and serfdom. (I also note that the most effective proponent of abolishing slavery, Abraham Lincoln, took a more incrementalist approach than some others did back then.) Here we have an example of the absolutism to which the libertarian movement is all too prone: immigration is a good thing, so it must be infinitely good and must never be limited; there's an absolute right to mobility across national borders, but if the streets are privately owned such that nobody can walk through without permission, that's fine.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Libertarian vs neocon

An interesting post from my old friend Todd Seavey: "Is it possible to be both a libertarian and a neocon?" For my part, I used to consider myself to be both, and now don't consider myself to be either, but even as a centrist I remain influenced by those two now-feuding but once somewhat allied schools of thought. Todd is already getting pushback in the comments for wishy-washiness in the imperative of demonizing "neocons," and while his anarchocapitalism should shield him from accusations of ideological impurity, it doesn't. So welcome, Todd, to the community of the hard-to-pigeonhole.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book note: Unleashing the Second American Century

Still reading, as previously mentioned: Unleashing the Second American Century: Four Forces for Economic Dominance, by Joel Kurtzman. I plan to review it here at Quicksilber in the near future. In the meantime, here's an article based on an interview with the author by my friend and colleague Gil Weinreich. (As always, no employer has any responsibility for anything appearing at my blog.) Having read a rather dark vision of the future recently, it's good to shift mental gears by considering an optimistic view.

Also, I'd like to remind readers that this blog is an Amazon affiliate, such that I may get a small portion of revenues generated by Amazon purchases done via links here to books and other products.

UPDATE 3/6: My review.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The sofalarity is near

An interesting piece in The New Yorker: "As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse?" by Tim Wu. Particularly memorable line: "If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity." Defined: "That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts." A WALL-E reference follows.

Also: "The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests." That strikes an unduly passive note; the consumer "defined" by the tech industry, which should "cater" to our better selves. Still, I agree with the basic sentiment. Too much time staring into electronic screens, not enough time amid society or nature--can be a very bad thing even if the robots don't decide to exterminate humanity in the next few decades.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Recommended readings

Posting may be light,  as various weather-, work- and tax-related matters press on my time. A few recommendations for reading things on topics I found interesting:

--"Will more workers be artists in the future?" James Pethokoukis commenting on a post by Martin Hutchinson on robots and work. If I were the president of the United States, FWIW, I would appoint a commission to examine a range of societal dangers and opportunities arising from robotics and artificial intelligence, and would ask its members behind the scenes to produce something worthwhile, not BS.

--Walter Olson with a Cato post "About That Coke Ad." I didn't see the Superbowl, but now that I've read this and watched that commercial, I feel I am up-to-speed on the most important part.

--"A Beautiful Map of Global Ocean Currents." I'm increasingly impressed by how io9 covers real science and science fiction without making a hash of the distinction between them. On a similar note, I recommend Nature Futures, which runs science fiction under the auspices of the science journal Nature.

UPDATE 2:08 PM: Review copy received: Unleashing the Second American Century: Four Forces for Economic Dominance, by Joel Kurtzman. Looks interesting. UPDATE: My review.