Monday, June 30, 2014

Wall Street AI risks

At Research magazine, I look at a dark scenario: "Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?" Excerpt:
No less a scientific name than Stephen Hawking has been raising alarms about out-of-control AI. In a recent opinion piece, Hawking and several scientist co-authors warned: “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.” 
In an era of grandmaster-beating chess programs and driverless-car prototypes, it is no surprise that anxieties about where such technology is heading have gained traction. Nor is it a surprise that critics target the tech sector and the Pentagon (especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA) for working on increasingly powerful systems that may one day outsmart, outrank or outlive us all. (A UN meeting in Geneva in May convened experts to discuss emerging “lethal autonomous weapons.”) 
What might be surprising is the idea that Wall Street could give rise to dangerous AI—not in the obvious sense that financial institutions raise capital for the tech sector, but in that financial technology itself might be the matrix for the rise of the machines. That is the gist of one emerging line of thinking about the dangers of smart computers.
Whole thing here. Some related writing by me is here.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The reform conservative climate punt

Just for the record, in case future researchers in a heavily air-conditioned facility someday scroll through this blog as part of some vast data-mining project, let me state, unequivocally, that I dispute and reject Ross Douthat's post "Reform Conservatism and Climate Change," in which he argues that avoiding policy prescriptions on climate change is exactly the right thing for reform conservatives to be doing.

Douthat makes an extended analogy in which climate policy is likened to insurance that will be costly and have uncertain benefits, and require your neighbors to buy into it as well, plus the thing you're insuring against doesn't seem as bad as it did a few years ago, plus you're not as wealthy as you were a few years ago, so now is not the time to … blah blah blah. It's all offal. The risks are plenty real. The neighbors are considerably subject to your influence (because you are a huge property-owner known as the United States of America, and you buy a lot of their products and can put fees on ones that are carbon-intensive). You're not too poor to afford the insurance policy--if it's a carbon tax, it raises money, and can be used to help your economy by enabling cuts or elimination of other taxes.

This is what reform conservatism amounts to in 2014? Some child tax credits and deliberate omission of  action on climate? What kind of world are those kids going to grow up and grow old in? This kind.

UPDATE 6/30: "The best way to understand Douthat’s piece is by reverse engineering his argument as a constrained minimization problem The objective is to minimize the craziness he needs to embrace, subject to the constraint that he must end up in line with the denialist conspiracy theorists who dominate the base." I find this sadly persuasive, notwithstanding its lack of punctuation.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Research in Buffalo

A busy weekend of Erie Canal/Dewitt Clinton research. Here's a Buffalo News article about some of it.

UPDATE: As it appeared in the newspaper:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Some unconvincing AI

I have a piece upcoming about artificial intelligence. In the meantime, I recommend this post by Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg View: "Fake Victory for Artificial Intelligence." Bershidsky understandably expresses puzzlement about how the program called Eugene Goostman could have tricked 33% of judges at an event aimed at seeing whether people could judge whether their chat-session interlocutor was human or computer. Bershidsky points out that anyone can converse with the program at a Princeton site, so I went there and asked a question:
Are you worried about climate change?
The answer I got:
Yes I am worried about climate change, but it's my secret! Where do you came from, by the way? Could you tell me about the place where you live?
No, I'll pass on that. I also asked Eugene:
What do you think of the Bloomberg View column about you?
And instantly got:
"Artificial" doesn't mean "inferior". In some cases it means just the opposite... but not too often.
And later, when I mentioned what town I live in:
I can't believe it! The world went crazy, almost like my grandpa...

Friday, June 6, 2014

Premature failure report on climate change

Yesterday at Vox, Ezra Klein had an impressive but frustrating piece "7 reasons America will fail on climate change." Impressive because it makes many valid points, and frustrating because the tone of defeatism is unproductive and will never convince anybody of anything. For decades, many conservatives thought the Communists were going to win the Cold War; such thinking threatened to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and it was only in the 80s, when conservatism took a notably more optimistic tone in the Reagan years, that the scenario of a triumphant Soviet Union receded and then was falsified.

I've written before about how the politics of climate change could be reshuffled as the topic shifts from whether it's real or a problem to what to do about this real problem. Will a lot of time have been wasted and a lot of damage have been done by the time that shift is well underway? Yes. No denying it. But things change in American politics, sometimes fast. And predicting what won't be doable on the technological front is always a gamble.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Space pathways report

I know I said I wouldn't be blogging much, but this report from the National Research Council, "Pathways to Exploration," is very interesting (at least to those of us who are, as the polling data in the back of the report put it, "attentive" to space; a minority to be sure). I've read some of the document (notwithstanding the not-great legibility of its free, online version), and its call for setting up infrastructure on the moon to develop technology for getting to Mars makes sense to me:
While this report’s recommendation for adoption of a pathways approach is made without prejudice as to which particular pathway might be followed, it was, nevertheless, clear to the committee from this report’s independent analysis of several pathways that a return to extended surface operations on the Moon would make significant contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars and that it is also likely to provide a broad array of opportunities for international and commercial cooperation.
Me: The guy in the picture here looks a little spaced-out, but from what I've read in and about the report, it's a thoughtful piece of work, which includes discussion of fundamental questions about why go and who cares. I'll plan on reading more of it. On the off chance that Mitch Daniels, who co-chaired the committee, becomes president or vice president, one of the many credentials he'd bring to the job is a great deal of space policy knowledge, something not often found among high-level politicos.

New Jersey GOP primary results

Good news and bad news from New Jersey's primaries, and both are about the exact same thing: Jeffrey Bell's victory in the Republican primary to be challenger against Cory Booker for Senate.

The good news: Bell is an intelligent conservative policy wonk, someone with real experience and knowledge, not some "anti-establishment" candidate whose stock in trade is not knowing what he's talking about. He also has an interesting backstory of having unseated Clifford Case in the Republican Senate primary in 1978 (before losing to Bill Bradley for a seat that's been Democratic ever since).

The bad news: Bell is planning a campaign focused on the gold standard. Back in 1978, there was a case to be made for some kind of linkage of the dollar to gold. Inflation was surging and the then-new experiment in non-commodity fiat money was going poorly. Now, 36 years later, gold standard advocacy is a fossil relic of 1970s conservatism, a solution for a problem, high inflation, that doesn't exist, and a monetary policy repackaged as an all-purpose nostrum for whatever ails your economy.

It's good that policy-oriented conservatism will get a hearing in New Jersey this fall. It would have been great if this were a policy-oriented conservatism that's geared for the 21st century.

Bell has little chance of winning. The question is whether he'll make a case that will make him deserving of a win.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Blogging and more

This blog will probably be updated at a leisurely pace through the summer. Apologies to its small contingent of regular readers. I will be stepping up my Erie Canal/DeWitt Clinton book research, as well as writing for Research magazine (which bears neither credit nor blame for this blog) and other publications: I have a review upcoming in Financial History magazine, for example.

Regardless, I look forward to seeing the upcoming movie Earth to Echo, and certainly updates to this blog will include a review of that.