Category Archives: philosophy

A PC roost for terrorist chickens

Political correctness as a secular religion substitute

Being politically correct makes people feel they are good people. It provides a secular substitute for the psychological rewards people used to get from being devoutly religious, a self-built pedestal from which to sneer down on others who are not compliant with all the latest politically correct decrees. It started out long ago with a benign goal to protect abused and vulnerable minorities, but it has since evolved and mutated into a form of oppression in its own right. Surely we all want to protect the vulnerable and all want to stamp out racism, but political correctness long left those goals in the dust. Minorities are often protected without their consent or approval from things they didn’t even know existed, but still have to face any consequent backlash when they are blamed. Perceived oppressors are often victimized based on assumptions, misrepresentations and straw man analyses rather than actual facts or what they actually said. For PC devotees, one set of prejudices and bigotry is simply replaced by another. Instead of erasing barriers within society, political correctness often creates or reinforces them.

Unlike conventional religion, which is largely separated from the state and allows advocates to indulge with little effect on others, political correctness has no such state separation, but is instead deeply integrated into politics, hence its name. It often influences lawmakers, regulators, the media, police and even the judiciary and thereby incurs a cost of impact on the whole society. The PC elite standing on their pedestals get their meta-religious rewards at everyone’s expense, usually funded by the very taxpayers they oppress.

Dangers

Political correctness wouldn’t exist if many didn’t want it that way, but even if the rest of us object to it, it is something we have learned to live with. Sometimes however, denial of reality, spinning reasoning upside down or diverting attention away from unpleasant facts ceases to be just irritating and becomes dangerous. Several military and political leaders have recently expressed grave concerns about our vulnerability to a new wave of terrorism originating from the current Middle East problems. Even as the threat grows, the PC elite try to divert attention to blaming the West, equating moralities and cultural values and making it easier for such potential terrorism to gestate. There are a number of trends resulting from PC and together they add to the terrorist threats we’re currently facing while reducing our defenses, creating something of a perfect storm. Let’s look at some dangers that arise from just three PC themes – the worship of diversity, the redefining of racism, and moral equivalence and see some of the problems and weaknesses they cause. I know too little about the USA to make sensible comment on the exact situation there, but of course they are also targets of the same terrorist groups. I will talk about the UK situation, since that is where I live.

Worship of diversity

In the UK, the Labour Party admitted that they encouraged unchecked immigration throughout their time in power. It is now overloading public services and infrastructure across the UK, and it was apparently done ‘to rub the Conservatives’ noses in diversity’ (as well as to increase Labour supporter population). With EC policy equally PC, other EU countries have had to implement similar policies. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to be PC, neither the EC nor Labour saw any need to impose any limits or even a points system to ensure countries get the best candidates for their needs.

In spite of the PC straw man argument that is often used, the need for immigration is not in dispute, only its magnitude and sources. We certainly need immigration and most immigrants are just normal people just looking for a better life in the UK or refugees looking for safety from overseas conflicts. No reasonable person has any problem with immigration per se, nor the color of the immigrants, but any debate about immigration only last seconds before someone PC throws in accusations of racism, which I’ll discuss shortly. I think I am typical of most British people in being very happy to have people of all shades all around me, and would defend genuine efforts to win equality, but I still think we should not allow unlimited immigration. In reality, after happily welcoming generations of immigrants from diverse backgrounds, what most people see as the problem now is the number of people immigrating and the difficulties it makes for local communities to accommodate and provide services and resources for them, or sometimes even to communicate with them. Stresses have thus resulted from actions born of political correctness that was based on a fallacy, seeking to magnify a racism problem that had almost evaporated. Now that PC policy has created a situation of system overload and non-integration, tensions between communities are increasing and racism is likely to resurface. In this case, PC has already backfired, badly. Across the whole of Europe, the consequences of political correctness have led directly to increased polarization and the rise of extremist parties. It has achieved the exact opposite of the diversity utopia it originally set out to achieve. Like most British, I would like to keep racism consigned to history, but political correctness is resurrecting it.

There are security problems too. A few immigrants are not the nice ordinary people we’d be glad to have next door, but are criminals looking to vanish or religious extremists hoping to brainwash people, or terrorists looking for bases to plan future operations and recruit members. We may even have let in a few war criminals masquerading as refugees after their involvement in genocides. Nobody knows how many less-than-innocent ones are here but with possibly incompetent and certainly severely overworked border agencies, at least some of the holes in the net are still there.

Now that Edward Snowden has released many of the secrets of how our security forces stay on top of terrorism and the PC media have gleefully published some of them, terrorists can minimize their risk of being caught and maximize the numbers of people harmed by their activities. They can also immigrate and communicate more easily.

Redefining Racism

Racism as originally defined is a mainly historic problem in the UK, at least from the host community (i.e. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior). On that definition I have not heard a racist comment or witnessed a racist act against someone from an ethnic minority in the UK for well over a decade (though I accept some people may have a different experience; racism hasn’t vanished completely yet).

However, almost as if the main purpose were to keep the problem alive and protect their claim to holiness, the politically correct elite has attempted, with some legal success, to redefine racism from this ‘treating people of different race as inferior’, to “saying anything unfavorable, whether factual or not, to or about anyone who has a different race, religion, nationality, culture or even accent, or mimicking any of their attributes, unless you are from a protected minority. Some minorities however are to be considered unacceptable and not protected”. Maybe that isn’t how they might write it, but that is clearly what they mean.

I can’t buy into such a definition. It hides true racism and makes it harder to tackle. A healthy society needs genuine equality of race, color, gender, sexuality and age, not privileges for some and oppression for others.

I don’t believe in cultural or ideological equality. Culture and ideology should not be entitled to the same protection as race or color or gender. People can’t choose what color or nationality they were born, but they can choose what they believe and how they behave, unless oppression genuinely prevents them from choosing. We need to clearly distinguish between someone’s race and their behavior and culture, not blur the two. Cultures are not equal. They differ in how they treat people, how they treat animals, their views on democracy, torture, how they fight, their attitudes to freedom of speech and religion. If someone’s religion or culture doesn’t respect equality and freedom and democracy, or if it accepts torture of people or animals, or if its fighters don’t respect the Geneva Convention, then I don’t respect it; I don’t care what color or race or nationality they are.

Opinions are not all equally valid either. You might have an opinion that my art is every bit as good as Monet’s and Dali’s. If so, you’re an idiot, whatever your race or gender.

I can criticize culture or opinion or religion without any mention of race or skin color, distinguishing easily between what is inherited and what is chosen, between body and mind. No big achievement; so can most people. We must protect that distinction. If we lose that distinction between body and mind, there can be no right and wrong, and no justice. If you have freedom of choice, then you also have a responsibility for your choice and you should accept the consequences of that choice. If we can accept a wrong just because it comes from someone in a minority group or is approved of by some religion, how long will it be before criminals are considered just another minority? A recent UK pedophile scandal involved senior PC politicians supporting a group arguing for reduction of the age of consent to 10 and decriminalization of sex with young children. They didn’t want to offend the minority group seeking it, that wouldn’t have been politically correct enough. Although it was a long time ago, it still shows that it may only be a matter of time before being a pedophile is considered just another lifestyle choice, as good as any other. If it has happened once, it may happen again, and the PC climate next time might let it through.

Political correctness prevents civilized discussion across a broad field of academic performance, crime, culture and behavior and therefore prevents many social problems from being dealt with. The PC design of ‘hate crime’ with deliberately fuzzy boundaries generates excess censorship by officialdom and especially self-censorship across society due to fear of false accusation or accidentally falling foul of it. That undermines communication between groups and accelerates tribal divisions and conflict. Views that cannot be voiced can still exist and may grow more extreme and when finally given an outlet, may cause far greater problems.

PC often throws up a self-inflicted problem when a member of a minority group does or says something bad or clearly holds views that are also politically incorrect. PC media tries to avoid reporting any such occurrences, usually trying to divert attention onto another topic and accusing any other media that does deal with it of being racist or use their other weapon, the ad-hom attack. If they can’t avoid reporting it, they strenuously avoid any mention of the culprit’s minority group and if they can’t do that, will search for some way to excuse it, blame it on someone else or pretend it doesn’t matter. Although intended to avoid feeding racism, this makes it more difficult to get the debate necessary and can even increase suspicion of cover-ups and preferential treatment.

Indeed accusations of racism have become a powerful barrier to be thrown up whenever an investigation threatens to uncover any undesirable activity by a member of any ethnic or national minority and even more-so if a group is involved. For example, the authorities were widely accused of racism for investigating the ‘Trojan Horse’ stories, in a city that has already produced many of the recent UK additions to ISIS. Police need to be able to investigate and root out activities that could lead to more extremism and especially those that might be brainwashing kids for terrorism. A police force now terrified of being accused of being institutionally racist is greatly impeded when the race card is played. With an ever-expanding definition, it is played more and more frequently.

Moral relativism

It is common on TV to see atrocities by one side in overseas conflicts being equated to lesser crimes by the other. In fact, rather than even declaring equivalence, PC moral equivalence seemingly insists that all moral judgments are valued in inverse proportion to their commonality with traditional Western values. At best it often equates things from either side that really should not be equated. This creates a highly asymmetric playing field that benefits propaganda from terrorist groups and rogue regimes and undermines military efforts to prevent terrorist acts. It also decreases resistance to views and behaviors that undermine existing values while magnifying any grievance against the West.

PC media often gives a platform to extremists hoping to win new recruits, presumably so they can pretend to be impartial. While our security forces were doing their best to remove recruitment propaganda from the web, some TV news programs gleefully gave them regular free air time. Hate preachers have often been given lengthy interviews to put their arguments across.

The West’s willingness to defend itself is already greatly undermined after decades of moral equivalence eating away at any notion that we have something valuable or special to defend. Fewer and fewer people are prepared to defend our countries or our values against those who wish to replace liberal democracy with medieval tyranny. Our armies fight with threats of severe legal action and media spotlights highlighting every misjudgment on our side, while fighting against those who respect no such notions of civilized warfare.

Summary

Individually, these are things we have learned to live with, but added together, they put the West at a huge disadvantage when faced with media-savvy enemies such as ISIS. We can be certain that ISIS will make full use of each and every one of these PC weaknesses in our cultural defense. The PC chickens may come home to roost.

 

 

The future of ‘authenticity’

I recently watched an interesting documentary on the evolution of the British coffee shop market. I then had an idea for a new chain that is so sharp it would scratch your display if I wrote it here, so I’ll keep that secret. The documentary left me with another thought: what’s so special about authentic?

I’ll blog as I think and see where I get to, if anywhere.

Starbucks and Costa sell coffee (for my American readers, Costa is a British version of Starbucks that sells better coffee but seems to agree they should pay tax just like the rest of us – yes I know Starbucks has since reformed a bit, but Costa didn’t have to). Cafe Nero (or is it just Nero?) sells coffee with the ‘Authentic Italian’ experience. I never knew that until I watched the documentary. Such things fly way over my head. If Nero is closest when I want a coffee, I’ll go in, and I know the coffee is nice, just like Costa is nice, but authentic Italian? Why the hell would I care about my coffee being authentic Italian? I don’t go anywhere to get an authentic Danish pastry or an authentic Australian beer, or an authentic Swiss cheese, or an authentic Coke. What has coffee got to do with Italy anyway? It’s a drink. I don’t care how they treat it in any particular country, even if they used to make it nicer there. The basic recipes and techniques for making a decent coffee were spread worldwide decades ago, and it’s the coffee I want. Anyway, we use a Swiss coffee machine with Swiss coffee at home, not Italian, because the Swiss learned from their Italian sub-population and then added their usual high precision materials and engineering and science, they didn’t just take it as gospel that Mama somehow knew best. And because my wife is Swiss. My razor sharp idea isn’t a Swiss coffee chain by the way.

I therefore wonder how many other people who go into Cafe Nero care tuppence whether they are getting an authentic Italian experience, or whether like me they just want a decent coffee and it seems a nice enough place. I can understand the need to get the best atmosphere, ambiance, feel, whatever you want to call it. I can certainly understand that people might want a cake or snack to go with their coffee. I just don’t understand the desire to associate with another country. Italy is fine for a visit; I have nothing against Italians, but neither do I aspire in any way to be or behave Italian.

Let’s think it through a bit. An overall experience is made up of a large number of components: quality and taste of the coffee and snacks, natural or synthetic, healthy or naughty, the staff and the nature of the service, exterior and interior decor and color scheme, mixture of aromas, range of foods, size of cake portion, ages groups and tribal ranges of other customers, comfort of furnishings, lighting levels, wireless LAN access….. There are hundreds of factors. The potential range of combinations  is massive. People can’t handle all that information when they want a coffee, so they need an easy way to decide quickly. ‘Italian’ is really just a brand, reducing the choice stress and Cafe Nero is just adopting a set of typical brand values evolved by an entire nation over centuries. I guess that makes some sense.

But not all that much sense. The Italian bit is a nice shortcut, but once it’s taken out of Italy, whatever it might be, it isn’t in Italy any more. The customers are not expected to order in Italian apart beyond a few silly words to describe the size of the coffee. The customers mostly aren’t Italian, don’t look Italian, don’t chat in Italian and don’t behave Italian. The weather isn’t Italian. The views outside aren’t Italian. The architecture isn’t Italian. So only a few bits of the overall experience can be Italian, the overall experience just isn’t. If only a few bits are authentic, why bother? Why not just extract some insights of what things about ‘Italian’ customers find desirable and then adapt them to the local market? Perhaps what they have done, so if they just drop the pretense, everything would be fine. They can’t honestly say they offer an authentic Italian experience, just a few components of such. I never noticed their supposed Italianness anyway but I hate pretentiousness so now that I understand their offering, it adds up to a slight negative for me. Now that I know they are pretending to be Italian, I will think twice before using them again, but still will if it’s more than a few metres further to another coffee shop. Really, I just want a coffee and possibly a slice of cake, in a reasonably warm and welcoming coffee shop.

Given that it is impossible to provide an ‘authentic Italian experience’ outside of Italy without also simulating every aspect of being in Italy, how authentic could they be in the future? What is the future of authenticity? Could Cafe Nero offer a genuinely Italian experience if that’s what they really wanted? Bring on VR, AR, direct brain links, sensory recording and replay. Total Recall.  Yes they could, sort of. With a full sensory full immersion system, you could deliver an experience that is real and authentic in every sense except that it isn’t real. In 2050, you could sell a seemingly genuinely authentic Italian coffee and cake in a genuinely Italian atmosphere, anywhere. But when they do that, I’ll download that onto my home coffee machine or my digital jewelry. Come to think about it, I could just drink water and eat bread and do all the rest virtually. Full authenticity, zero cost.

This Total Recall style virtual holiday or virtual coffee is fine as far as it goes, but a key problem is knowing that it isn’t real. If you disable that by hypnosis or drugs or surgery or implants or Zombie tech, then your Matrix style world will have some other issues to worry about that are more important. If you don’t, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, then knowing the difference between real and virtual will be all-important. If you know it isn’t real, it pushes a different set of buttons in your brain.

In parallel, as AI gets more and more powerful, a lot of things will be taken over by machines. That adds to the total work pool of man + machine so the economy expands and we’re all better off, if we do it right. We can even restore and improve the environment at the same time. In that world, some roles will still be occupied by humans. People will focus more on human skills, human interaction, crafts, experiences, care, arts and entertainment, sports, and especially offering love and attention. I call it the Care Economy. If you take two absolutely identical items, one provided by a machine and one by another person, the one offered by the person will be more valued, and therefore more valuable – apart from a tiny geek market that specifically wants machines. Don’t believe me? Think of the high price glassware you keep for special occasions and dinner parties. Cut by hand by an expert with years of training. Each glass is slightly different from every other. In one sense it is shoddy workmanship compared to the mass-produced glass, precision made, all identical, that costs 1% as much. The human involvement is absolutely critical. The key human involvement is that you know you couldn’t possibly do it, that it took a highly skilled craftsman. You aren’t buying just the glass, but the skills and attention and dedication and time of the craftsman. In just the same way, you will happily pay a bigger proportion of your bigger future income for other people’s time. Virtual is fine and cheap, but you’ll happily pay far more for the real thing. That will greatly offset the forces pushing towards a totally virtual experience.

This won’t happen overnight, and that brings us to another force that plays out over the same time. When we use a phrase like ‘authentic Italian’, we don’t normally put a date on it. Do we mean contemporary Italy, 1960 Italy, or what? If 1960, then we’d have to use a lot of virtual tech to simulate it. If we mean contemporary, then that includes all the virtual stuff that goes on in Italy too, which is likely pretty much what happens virtually elsewhere. A large proportion of our everyday will be virtual. How can you have authentic virtual? When half of what everyone sees every day isn’t real, you could no more have an authentic Italian coffee bar than an authentic hobbit hole in Middle Earth.

Authenticity is a term that can already only be applied to a subset of properties of a particular component. A food item or a drink could be authentic in terms of its recipe and taste, origin and means of production of the ingredients, perhaps even served by an Italian, but the authenticity of the surrounding context is doomed to be more and more limited. Does it matter though? I don’t think so.

The more I think about it, the less I care if it is in any way authentic. I want a pleasing product served by pleasant human staff in a pleasant atmosphere. I care about the various properties and attributes in an absolute sense, and I also care whether they are provided by human or machine, but the degree to which they mimic some particular tradition really doesn’t add any value for me. I am very happy to set culture free to explore the infinite potential of imagination and make an experience as enjoyable as possible.  Authenticity is just a labelled cage, and we’re better if it is unlocked. I want real pleasure, not pretend pleasure, but authenticity is increasingly becoming a pretense.

Oh, my razor sharp idea? As I said, it’s secret.

 

 

Errones, infectious biases that corrupt thinking

I know it isn’t always obvious in some of my blogs what they have to do with the future. This one is about error tendencies, but of course making an error now affects the future, so they are relevant and in any case, there is even a future for error tendencies. A lot of the things I will talk about are getting worse, so there is a significant futures trend here too. Much of the future is determined by happenings filtered through human nature so anything that affects human nature strongly should be an important consideration in futurology. Enough justification for my human nature thinkings. On with the show.

Hormones are chemicals that tend to push the behavior of an organic process in a particular direction, including feelings and consequentially analysis. A man flooded with testosterone may be more inclined to make a more risky decision. A lot of interpersonal interactions and valuations are influenced by hormones too, to varying degrees.

In much the same way, many other forces can influence our thinking or perception and hence analysis of external stimuli such as physical facts or statistics. A good scientist or artist may learn to be more objective and to interpret what they observe with less bias, but for almost everyone, some perceptive biases remain, and after perception, many analytical biases result from learned thinking behaviors. Some of those thinking behaviors may be healthy, such as being able to consciously discount emotions to make more clinical decisions when required, or to take full account of them at other times. Others however are less healthy and introduce errors.

Error-forcing agents

There are many well-known examples of such error-forcing agents. One is the notorious halo effect that surrounds attractive women, that may lead many people to believe they are better or nicer in many other ways than women who are less attractive. Similarly, tall men are perceived to be better managers and leaders.

Another is that celebrities from every area find their opinions are valued far outside the fields where they are actually expert. Why should an actor or pop singer be any more knowledgeable or wiser than anyone else not trained in that field? Yet they are frequently asked for their opinions and listened to, perhaps at the expense of others.

When it’s a singer or actor encouraging people to help protect a rain forest, it’s pretty harmless. When they’re trying to tell us what we should eat or believe, then it can become dangerous. When it is a politician making pronouncements about which scientists we should believe on climate change, or which medicines should be made available, it can cause prolonged harm. The reason I am writing this blog now is that we are seeing a lot more of that recently – for example, politicians in many countries suddenly pretending they can speak authoritatively on which results to believe from climate science and astrophysics even when most scientists couldn’t. A few of them have some scientific understanding, but the vast majority don’t and many actually show very little competence when it comes to clear thinking even in their own jurisdictions, let alone outside.

Errones

These groups are important, because they are emitting what I will call errones, hormone-like thinking biases that lead us to make errors. Politicians get to be elected by being good at influencing people, celebs too become popular by appealing to our tastes. By overvaluing pronouncements from these groups, our thinking is biased in that direction without good reason. It is similar in effect to a hormone, in that we may not be consciously aware of it, but it influences our thinking all the same. So we may have held a reasonably well-thought-out opinion of something, and then a favored celebrity or politician makes a speech on it, and even though they have no particular expertise in the matter, our opinion changes in that direction. Our subsequent perceptions, interpretations, analyses and opinions on many other areas may subsequently be affected by the bias caused by that errone. Worse still, in our interactions with others, the errone may spread to them too. They are infectious. Similar to Richard Dawkins’ memes, which are ideas that self-perpetuate and spread through a population, errones may self-reinforce and spread organically too, but errones are not ideas like memes, but are biases in thinking more like hormones, hence the name errone.

Some general thinking errors are extremely common and we are familiar with them, but tat doesn’t stop us being affected sometimes if we don’t engage due care.

Consensus

Other errones are assembled over years of exposure to our culture. Some even have some basis in some situations, but become errones when we apply them elsewhere. Consensus is a useful concept when we apply it to things that are generally nice to eat, but it has no proper place in science and becomes an errone when cited there. As Einstein pointed out when confronted with a long list of scientists who disagreed with him, if he was wrong, even one would suffice. There was once a consensus that the Earth was flat, that there were four elements, that there was an ether, that everything was created by a god. In each case, successions of individuals challenged the consensus until eventually people were persuaded of the error.

Authority

Another well-known errone is attitude to authority. Most parents will be well familiar with the experience of their kid believing everything teacher tells them and refusing to believe them when they say the teacher is talking nonsense (in case you didn’t know, teachers are not always right about everything). In varying degrees, people believe their doctors, scientists, parents, politicians not by the quality of their actual output but by the prejudice springing from their authority. Even within a field, people with high authority can make mistakes. I was rather pleased a long time ago when I spotted a couple of mistakes in Stephen Hawking’s ‘A brief history of time’ even though he seemingly has an extra digit in his IQ. He later admitted those same errors and I was delighted. He had the best authority in the world on the subject, but still made a couple of errors. I am pleased I hadn’t just assumed he must have been right and accepted what he said.

Vested interest

Yet another errone with which you should be familiar is vested interest. People often have an ax to grind on a particular issue and it is therefore appropriate to challenge what they are saying, but it is a big error to dismiss something as wrong simply because someone has an interest in a particular outcome. A greengrocer is still telling the truth when they say that vegetables are good for you. The correct answer to 7+6 is 13 regardless of who says so. You shouldn’t listen to someone else telling you the answer is 15 who says ‘well he would say it is 13 wouldn’t he…’

These common errors in thinking are well documented, but we still make new ones.

Word association errones

Some errones can be summed up in single words. For example ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘synthetic’, ‘fair’, ‘progressive’, ‘right’, ‘left’ are all words we hear every day that activate a range of prejudicial processes that color our processing of any subsequent inputs. Arsenic is natural, foxgloves are natural, so is uranium. That doesn’t necessarily make them good things to eat. Not every idea from the right or left of politics is good or bad. Stupidity exists across the political spectrum, while even the extremes have occasional good ideas. But errones cause us to apply filters and make judgments that bad ideas or things are good or that good ideas or things are bad, merely because of their origin. This errone is traditionally known as ‘tarring everything with the same brush’ just because they fall in the same broad category.

Deliberate errone creation

In my view, single word errones are the most dangerous, and we add to the list occasionally. The currently fashionable word ‘Self-proclaimed’ (yeah, OK, it’s hyphenated) is intended to suggest that someone has no genuine right to a platform and therefore should be ignored. It is as much an insult as calling someone an idiot, but is more malign because it seeks to undermine not just a single statement or argument, but everything that person says. Political correctness is very rich with such words. People mostly think using words, so coloring their meaning gradually over time means that people will still think the same way using the same verbal reasoning, but since the meaning of the words they are using has changed slightly, they will end up with a result that sounds the same as it used to, but now means something quite different.

For example, we’ve seen exactly that happen over the last decade by the redefining of poverty to be having an income below a percentage of average income rather than the traditional definition of being unable to afford basic essentials. People still retain the same emotional connection to the words poor and poverty, and are still shocked as politicians cite ever worsening statistics of the numbers of people in poverty even as society gets wealthier. Under its new meaning, if everyone’s income increased 1000-fold overnight, exactly the same number of people would remain ‘in poverty’, even though they could now all afford to live in luxury. People wanting to talk about poverty in its original meaning now have to use different language. The original words have been captured as political weapons. This errone was created and spread very deliberately and has had exactly the effect desired. People now have the same attitude to low income as they once held to poor.

All very 1984

Capturing language and fencing off entire areas of potential thought by labelling them is a proven excellent technique for furthering a cause. It is of course the basis of Orwell’s 1984, by which the authorities enslave a population by enforcing a particular group-think, with words as their primary tool, and understanding of the techniques has been much practiced around the world. Orwell wrote his book to highlight the problem, but it hasn’t gone away, but rather got worse. Increasing understanding of human psychology and use of advanced marketing techniques have only added to its power and effectiveness. In absolutely 1984 style, ‘progressive’ sounds very loving and positive and ‘regressive’ very nasty and negative, but how has it come that we describe alternative tax policies in such terms? Tax is rightfully an issue for political parties to debate and decide, but surely democratic politics is there to allow people a mechanism to live alongside peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect, not for each side to treat the other as inferiors who should be scorned and ostracized. However, infection biases someone’s thinking and is therefore error forcing, and an errone.

Similarly, ‘traditional’ was once a word we used to describe normal or slightly old-fashioned views, but political correctness seeks to quickly replace traditional values by using descriptors such as ‘dinosaur’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’ for anyone who doesn’t follow their line. Most people are terrified of being labelled as such so will quickly fall in line with whatever the current demands for politically correct compliance are. Once someone does so, they adjust the external presentation of their own thinking to make the new status quo more acceptable to them, and seek to authenticate and justify themselves to others by proselytizing the errone, self censoring and controlling their own thinking according to the proscribed filters and value set. They basically accept the errone, build it into place and nurture it. Memes are powerful. Errones are worse because they get far deeper into places mere ideas can’t.

Thanks to the deliberate infection with such errones, it is no longer possible to hold a discussion or even to state statistical facts across a wide range of topics without demonstrating a me-too bias. If analysis and debate can no longer be done without deliberate introduction of systemic error,  when error is not seen as a problem but as a requirement, then I suggest we are in trouble. We should be able to agree at least on basic facts, and then argue what to do about them, but even facts now are heavily filtered and distorted at numerous stages before we are allowed access to them.

Old wives’ tales (no age or gender-related slur intended)

Not all errones are related to this kind of tribal-cultural-political warfare and deliberately fabricated and spread. Some are commonly held assumptions that are wrong, such as old wives’ tales or because people are not very good at thinking about exponential or non-linear systems. Take an example. Most environmentalists agree that rapid IT obsolescence is a big problem, resulting in massive waste and causing far more environmental impact than would be necessary if we just made things last longer. However, each generation of IT uses far less resource than the one it replaces, and in a few more generations of devices, we’ll be able to do all we do today in just a few grams of device. With far more people in the world wealthy enough and wanting all that function, doing it with today’s technology would have huge environmental impact, but with tomorrow’s, very much less. Thus slowing down the obsolescence cycle would have dire environmental consequences. The best way to help the environment is to progress quickly to ultra-low-impact IT. Similar errors exist across environmental policy world-wide, and the cause is the simple errone that reducing the impact of any part of a system will reduce the full system impact. That is very often incorrect. This same environmental errone has caused massive environmental and human damage already and will cause far more before it is done, by combining enthusiasm to act with what is now very commonly held analytical error.

Linear thinking

The Errone of linear thinking probably results from constant exposure to it in others, making it hard to avoid infection. Typical consequences are inability to take correctly account for future technology or future wealth, also typically assuming that everything except the problem you’re considering will remain the same, while your problem increases. A  related errone is not allowing for the fact that exponential growths generally only happen for a limited time, followed by eventual leveling off or even decline, especially when related to human systems such as population, obesity, debt etc. Many stories of doom are based on the assumption that some current exponential growth such as population or resource use will continue forever, which is nonsense, but the errone seems to have found some niches where it retains viability.

Errone communication

Errones spread through a population simply via exposure, using any medium. Watching an innocent TV program, reading a newspaper article or hearing a remark in a pub are all typical ways they spread. Just as some diseases can reduce resistance to other diseases, some errones such as the celebrity halo effect can lead to easier infection by others. People are far more likely to be infected by an errone from their favorite celebrity than a stranger. If you see them making an error in their reasoning but making it sound plausible because they believe it, there is a good chance you may be infected by it and also help to spread it. Also, like diseases, people have varying vulnerability to different types of errones.

Being smart won’t make you immune

Intelligence isn’t necessarily a defense and may even be essential to create vulnerability. Someone who is highly intelligent may actually be more susceptible to errones that are packaged in elaborate intellectual coatings, that may be useless for infecting less intelligent people who might just ignore them. A sophisticated economic errone may only be able to infect people with a high level of expertise in economics, since nobody else would understand it, but may nevertheless still be an errone, still wrong thinking. Similarly, some of the fine political theories across every point on the spectrum might be mind-numbingly dull to most people and therefore pass over with no effect, but may take root and flourish in certain political elites. Obviously lots of types of social and special interest groups have greater exposure and vulnerability to certain types of errones. There may well be some errones connected with basketball strategies but they can’t have an effect on me since I have zero knowledge of or interest in the game, and never have had any, so the basic platform for them to operate doesn’t exist in my brain.

Errones may interact with each other. Some may act as a platform for others, or fertilize them, or create a vulnerability or transmission path, or they may even be nested. It is possible to have an entire field of knowledge that is worse than useless and yet still riddled with errors. For example, someone may make some errone-type statistical errors when analyzing the effects of a homeopathic treatment. The fact that a whole field is nonsensical does not make it immune from extra errors within.

Perceptual errones are built into our brains too – some of which are part pre-programmed and part infectious. There are many well-known optical illusions that affect almost everyone. The mechanics of perception introduce the error, and that error may feed into other areas such as decision making. I suffer from vertigo, and even a simple picture of a large drop is quite enough to fool my brain into a fear reaction even though there is obviously no danger present. This phobia may not be part genetic and part infectious, and other phobias can be certainly be communicated, such as fear of spiders or snakes.

Group-think related errones

A very different class of errone is the collective one, closely related to group-think. The problem of ‘designed by committee’ is well known. A group of very smart people can collectively make really dumb decisions. There are many possible reasons and not all are errone-related. Agreeing with the boss or not challenging the idiot loud-mouth can both get bad results with no need for errones. Groupthink is where most people in the room shares the same prejudice, and that can often be an errone. If other people that you respect think something, you may just accept and adopt that view without thinking it through. If it is incorrect, or worse, if it is correct but only applies in certain conditions, and you don’t know that, or don’t know the conditions, then it can lead to later errors.

I once sat through an electronics lecture explaining why it was impossible to ever get more than 2.4kbit/s second through a copper telephone wire and no matter what happened, we never would, and you can’t change the laws of physics. That’s hard to believe today when ADSL easily delivers over 4Mbit/s to my home down the same copper wire. The physics wasn’t wrong, it just only applied to certain ways of doing things, and that lecturer obviously hadn’t understood that and thought it was a fundamental limit that would block any technique. I could use a similar excuse to explain why I failed a thermodynamics exam on my first attempt. It just seemed obviously wrong to me that you couldn’t get any energy from the waste heat from a power station. Our lecturer had delivered the correct thermodynamic equations for the first stage of a heat engine and then incorrectly left us knowing that that was it, and no additional heat could be used however clever anyone might be. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be right and that confusion remained for months afterwards until I finally saw it explained properly. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable to errors caused by knowing something that was wrong, that had been communicated to me by a poor lecturer. Well, that’s my side, but I have to admit it is theoretically possible that maybe I just didn’t listen properly. Either way, it’s still an errone.

Why I am mentioning this one in a group-think section is because misunderstandings and misapplications of thermodynamics have permeated large populations withing the climate change discussion community. Whichever side you are on, you will be familiar with some errors that affect the other lot, probably less so with the errones that you have been infected with. Just like me I guess.

On a larger scale, entire nations can be affected by errones. We don’t think of patriotism as an error, although it clearly affects our value judgments, but patriotism is just one aspect of our bias towards communities close to where we live. Whereas patriotism starts as a benign loyalty to your country, extending that loyalty into a belief in superiority is certainly a very common errone, thinking that anything and everyone in other countries must be less good than what you have close to home. The opposite exists too. In some countries, people assume that anything from abroad must be better. Of course, in some countries, they’re right.

The huge impacts of errones

Errones can be extremely expensive too. The banking crisis was caused in good measure by a widespread errone connected with valuation of complex derivatives. Once that happened, a different errone affected the rest of the population. Even though the bank crash was costly, it only directly accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall global economic crash. The rest was caused by a crisis of confidence, a confidence errone if you like. The economy had been sound, so there was absolutely no reason for any collapse, but once the errone that a recession was coming took hold, it became strongly self-fulfilling. Everyone shut their wallets, started being unduly careful with their spending and economies crashed. Those of us who challenged that assumption at the time were too few and too influential to prevent it. So errones can be an enormous problem.

Elsewhere economic errones are common. Housing bubbles, the web bubble, tulip bubbles, we don’t ever seem to learn and the bubble errone mutates and reappears again and again like flu viruses. Investment errones are pretty ubiquitous, even at government level. The UK created what is commonly known now as The Concorde Fallacy, an errone that makes people more inclined to throw money down the drain on a project if they already have spent a lot on it.

Still other errones affect people in their choice of where to live. People often discount liability to earthquakes, volcanoes,  hurricanes, tsuanmis and floods if they haven’t happened for a long time. When probability finally catches up, they are caught unprepared and often looking for someone to blame. The normality of everyday life quickly builds up into experience that pervades thinking and hides away thoughts of disaster. In stark contrast, other people fall easy prey to stories of doom and gloom, because they have been infected with errones that make them seem more dangerous or likely than in reality.

Health errones are an obvious problem. Scientists and nutritionists change advice on what to eat and drink from time to time as new research brings results, but the news of change in advice is not always accepted. Many people will not hear the news, others will not accept it because they are sick of changing advice from scientists, others will just hear and ignore it. The result is that outdated advice, sometimes wrong advice, can persist and continue to spread long after it has been proven wrong. What was once considered good advice essentially mutates into an errone. The current fat v sugar debate will be interesting to follow in this regard, since it will have ongoing effects throughout the entire food, sports, entertainment and leisure industries. We can be certain that some of the things we currently strongly believe are actually errones that lead to errors in many areas of our lives.

Looking at transport, everyone knows it is safer to fly than drive, but actually those stats only work for long trips. If you only want to travel 5km, it is safer to drive than to fly. 50km starts to favor flying and more than that certainly sees flying being safest. That errone probably has an immeasurably small impact in consequentially wrong decisions, but has managed to spread very successfully.

I could go on – there are a lot of errones around, and we keep making more of them. But enough for now.

San Francisco is the front line of capitalism reform, begging the question: who owns the city?

I watched on the news tonight how people who have lived in San Francisco for decades are being evicted from their homes by landlords eager to cash in on the rich rents they can charge to incoming techie types on large salaries from the tech giants.

The news program showed the hippie generation blockading the luxury buses taking people to work at Google. Google pays well to get high quality intellect. There is nothing wrong with that. Those employees have lots of cash but they still need accommodation, so the poor are kicked out of their rented accommodation because they can no longer afford the rents. So it finds itself at war with the longer term residents who made the city what it is, the reason Google wants to be there. 

A simple question sums up the whole problem. Who owns San Francisco? Answering that isn’t simple and leads directly to how we must change capitalism if it is to survive, and since we must, we eventually will. The gentle protests of the weak and disenfranchised in San Francisco will once again put that hippy generation at the front line of change.

I am no expert on San Francisco. I went to Menlo Park once to give a talk, then left, spending less than a day there in total. I’ve seen it many times on TV and the media of course. It is famed for the hippies, Alcatraz, being a gay hub, being the focus of west coast IT development, and a few movies. Some other things happen there, but these are the things it is mainly known for.

A city is lots of things. It is the land, with some buildings and infrastructure on top, and some resources below. Some is owned collectively, some by individuals or companies. Those are very important, but they are only a fraction of what a city is. It is also the people – the activities that go on there, the culture, the customs, the ideologies, the intellectual activities, the business, the entertainment, and it is also a brand – when someone thinks of San Francisco, a bunch of associations appears in their minds, just like any commercial brand, making it very different from London or New York or LA. It is also the geography –  the location, the climate, the risks of quakes. And it is also the history, the accumulated associations over decades.

When a property developer buys a building somewhere, they may add to  its physical value by renovating it, decorating it, extending it, or adding some nice furnishing. But any property developer has a choice of where to buy, and chooses an area they think will increase in value. The increase in value comes from all the other intangibles I just mentioned, (mostly what economists call social capital, but I don’t like using jargon where ordinary words do perfectly well) so the underlying question is: why should all the value increase go to the developer. In essence they are getting all the efforts and talents of everyone else, all the magnetism they create, for free. Why? Why should they get it all? Why should the person living in the flat not get it? It is they who are the magnet. You can get a flat anywhere. The reason you want that one is because of where it is. Does that value-add not belong to everyone who made that place the place to be?

Look at it another way. Suppose it’s the 1960s. You are a hippie and you want to go where it is happening. Suppose all the hippies had a flash of insight and realised what would happen 50 years later. Suppose they all decided to build their own town next door. Suppose they decided that capital isn’t everything, and decreed that the value of each property there would be split. Part would be the physical property and that would increase in value at the construction industry inflation rate. The other part of the property value would be the cultural value, and that would increase to whatever the market stands. The property developer would get a fair ongoing rent for that class of property. The community would get the remuneration for the value they have added. Each year a market valuation would show how much property has increased in value, how much value of new business has been generated because of the local atmosphere. The people who lived there the last year would get a share of that. A hippie moving into the area wouldn’t go to San Francisco, that sterile could-be-anywhere town with no culture. They’d go to the really cool trendy town next door where everyone wants to be and property costs a fortune. But as they live there, as they contribute to the area’s atmosphere, so they too get a ‘citizen wage’, their share of the value add. That offsets the rent they pay the next year.

If they did that, the rewards would go to those who create them. Isn’t that the way it should be? Why should someone get all the rewards just because they provided some cash up front, but perhaps did nothing more to contribute? Why should the property owner also be the assumed owner of the value the community has added to the area? Why is capital more important than investment of time, energy, emotion, and love?

The hippies didn’t do that, neither did the gay community. Now the enormous value they all added to San Francisco is all going to the property developers, 100% of it, even though all they did was own the flats. In gratitude, they are now evicting those contributors to make way for others whose sole advantage is having more cash to offer. That is capitalism. Well, if that is so, capitalism needs to change.

We are watching economics evolve worldwide. In most developed countries, automation is concentrating wealth with the company owners. Buy 100 machines and employ no staff, keep all the proceeds to yourself, and get rich. It looks very different, but actually it is the same. The provision of the capital is assumed to be the only part that matters. The access to a market, the development of all the infrastructure, the culture in which the product will be used, the political stability, the banking system, the accumulated human knowledge that went into every aspect of the product, every other aspect of the modern world that makes the product possible, and makes it possible to sell – all of that is assumed to be of no value and receives none of the proceeds other than the same tax rate that a company would pay if it contributed heavily to culture and society and employed thousands of employees. If it were given an agreed value, that could become a part ownership of the company, proceeds allocated to the capital providers and the silent partner culture capital provider.

Capitalism worked well when the immaturity of technology meant that about half of the wealth generated went to employees and half to the owner. You could get very rich, but others still had enough income to buy your products, and it all kept working. If we automated every job and a few people own all the machines, nobody else could afford to buy and capitalism would grind quickly to a halt. We aren’t there yet, but somewhere like that is the ultimate destination if we don’t start adjusting it. Even those wealthy young programmers could be automated by an advanced AI.

So we need to adjust capitalism. Working out some way of valuing the entire cultural contribution of a society or region so it can stand side by side with the provision of capital would be a good start. Then some sort of culture tax can distribute wealth between the factory owners and those who own the culture in which it exists, i.e. all of us.

Capitalism is a good idea, one that has served America and the free world very well. It doesn’t need thrown away, just adjusted a bit. We need to look at it afresh and realize that capitalism isn’t the same as materialism. Just because something isn’t physical doesn’t mean it has no value. Surely we already understand that with all the media we consume? All we need to do is extend that understanding a bit further, to the other intangibles. Everyone contributes to the character of a city, from the mayor down to the bum on the street with a begging bowl.

So looking at San Francisco and the bus demos, it seems that the nouveau riche of the internet generation are only rich because of the inability of capitalism itself to keep up. Google is only wealthy because the rest of the market is slower to evolve, even most of the IT industry. They can only make money at all because the internet hasn’t evolved fast enough and much of the original dream is yet to be realized. It it had kept up, the perfect market would have no need for ads and they’d have little income.

San Francisco beautifully illustrates the clash of the permanent and the transient, the old and the new, the material and the emotional. Its done it a few times before, and it may again now.

If Gibbon were alive today, he wouldn’t be writing about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He’d be writing about San Francisco and the decline and fall of overly simplistic capitalism. I’m no Gibbon, but I hope I managed to explain my point.

Can we get a less abusive society?

When I wrote my recent blog on reducing the problem of rape, part of my research (yes I do sometimes try to learn about something before I blog about it) was looking at the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the CSEW. (As I said, I wasn’t very impressed by it and I couldn’t accept it as a true indicator of crime. A lot of the questions are ambiguous and there are big gaps and strong biases in the coverage. Some areas would therefore be overstated in results while others understated and it lends itself far too well to political lobbies. I said it was about as reasonable an indicator of crime level as a casual chat in a pub.)

The CSEW has a large section asking questions about various forms of abuse within relationships. Not just physical abuse such as rape, but financial, social or emotional abuse too – belittling someone, not letting them see their friends, not allowing them their share of the money. That sort of thing.

Since then, it occurred to me that abuse within relationships is a micro-scale version of what we do all the time socially via politics. If you look at a country as a whole, different groups with very different ideological preferences have to somehow live peacefully side by side in the long term. If you like, it’s a sort of enforced marriage, writ large, or a grand scale civil partnership if you prefer that. 

Taking that analogy, we could adapt some of the questions from the crime survey to see whether things we do regularly to each other in the guise of everyday politics are really a form of abuse. Even within marriages and partnerships, what most of us consider unacceptable behaviour may be accepted or practiced by a quite large proportion of people – according to the figures out this week, 16% of 16-19 year olds think it’s sometimes OK to hit a partner.

If you really don’t like your own country, you could leave, and often some people will tell you to do just that if you don’t like it, but the costs and the aggravation and the ‘why should it be me that has to leave?’ are a big deterrent. So you stay together and suffer the abuse. 

So, let’s take a few of the questions from the CSEW and apply them to the political scale. The questionnaire is here:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/method-quality/specific/crime-statistics-methodology/2012-13-crime-survey-for-england-and-wales.pdf

Starting with a few questions from the section on domestic violence:

Q1: Has your partner ever prevented you from having your fair share of the household money?

(Yes that question is in the domestic violence section, and I’d certainly answer yes, for pretty much every girlfriend I’ve ever had. That’s why I don’t believe much that comes out of the survey. It’s far too open to interpretation and far too tempting a tool for campaigning. Responses from people who have had serious abuse in this manner would be lost in the noise).

This one has a very obvious political equivalent, and we don’t even need to adapt it. Just about every pressure group would answer yes, and so would everyone who feels they should pay less tax or get more government support or more pay or feels the government spends too much on other people’s interests instead of theirs.

The battle between left and right often comes down to this. The left wants to take and spend more and more, and the right wants to keep their cash and spend it themselves. Each side occasionally gets their way to some degree, but there is no doubt in my mind – it is abusive, no better than a marital fight where the one currently holding the wallet or purse wins, i.e. whoever got most seats this time. We really should find a better way. It is this issue more than any other that made me realise that we ought to implement a dual democracy, (I describe that in my book Total Sustainability) and if we don’t this abuse will eventually lead to the Great Western War which I blogged about a couple of months ago:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

So, question 1, and we can already confirm we are in a highly abusive relationship.

Q2: Has your partner ever stopped you from seeing friends or relatives?

(Can anyone honestly say no to that?)

This one is rather harder to translate. The human rights act is notoriously pretty forceful on this when it comes to criminals, but what does it equate to in civil abuse? Aha! Public demonstrations. Government is intercepting a lot of metadata on who our friends and political friends are, using face recognition at public demonstrations, making them much harder to organise or attend, preventing access to a demonstration and dispersing large groups more. We can all think of groups we find repugnant and may prefer not to exist, but they do exist and share our land whether we like them or not, and they are human, whether we try to portray them as otherwise or not. This sort of abuse blurs into the next form, belittling. Some of us still defend freedom of speech, the right to say what you like without censorship. Others want to clamp down on it, selectively of course; their own right to demonstrate or speak freely must be protected. After the BBC’s Question Time this week, there were numerous people demanding that certain types of people or political parties should be banned from appearing. Such demands happen often. We saw Ed Davey and Prince Charles calling anyone who disagrees with their own views names and should be barred from having any public platform to air their views, the Green Party going still further and calling for people who disagree with them to be sacked and banned from office. So coupling it with belittling, this abuse is becoming the norm in politics and even the Royal Family are guilty of it.

So, more abuse.

Q3: has your partner ever repeatedly belittled you to the extent you felt worthless?

Anyone who ever watches political debate will easily recognise the strong analogies here. These days, in the UK at least, members of all political parties often do their very best to present opposing views as worthless, unacceptable, unfair, odious, backward, prehistoric, uncivilised…. It seems the norm rather than the exception. It isn’t just the parties themselves. Anyone who doesn’t tick all the boxes on the latest political correctness fad is often subjected to abuse by people who share opposing views. Civilised debate on a wide range of sensitive issues is impossible any more.

Definitely very abusive this time.

Q4 has your partner ever frightened you, by threatening to hurt you or someone close to you?

Isn’t that what strikes do? Or riots or even large peaceful public demonstrations? Or media campaigns by pressure groups? People often feel bullied into submission because of the potential consequences they feel if they don’t comply with the demands.

Quite abusive

The rest of the questions are not relevant, being specific to particular weapons. But I think I have made my point. By the criteria we use to judge abuse in our own personal relationships, our society is as guilty as hell. I think it is getting worse year by year. I think we are heading slowly but surely towards a critical point where the fuse finally blows and social breakdown is likely.

I think that in the 21st Century, it is about time we started to work out a more civilised way of living together, sharing the same space with human dignity and mutual respect. Maybe love is a bit much to ask for, but surely we can manage without abusing each other?

How to make a conscious computer

The latest generation of supercomputers have processing speed that is higher than the human brain on a simple digital comparison, but they can’t think, aren’t conscious. It’s not even really appropriate to compare them because the brain mostly isn’t digital. It has some digital processing in the optics system but mostly uses adaptive analog neurons whereas digital computers use digital chips for processing and storage and only a bit of analog electronics for other circuits. Most digital computers don’t even have anything we would equate to senses.

Analog computers aren’t used much now, but were in fairly widespread use in some industries until the early 1980s. Most IT people have no first hand experience of them and some don’t seem to even be aware of analog computers, what they can do or how. But in the AI space, a lot of the development uses analog approaches.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/gel-computing/ discusses some of my previous work on conscious computer design. I won’t reproduce it here.

I firmly believe consciousness, whether externally or internally focused, is the result of internally directed sensing, (sensing can be thought of as the solicitation of feeling) so that you feel your thoughts or sensory inputs in much the same way. The easy bit is figuring out how thinking can work once you have that, how memories can be relived, concepts built, how self-awareness, sentience, intelligence emerge. All those are easy once you have figured out how feeling works. That is the hard problem.

Detection is not the same as feeling. It is easy to build a detector or sensor that flips a switch or moves a dial when something happens or even precisely quantifies something . Feeling it is another layer on that. Your skin detects touch, but your brain feels it, senses it. Taking detection and making it feel and become a sensation, that’s hard. What is it about a particular circuit that adds sensation? That is the missing link, the hard problem, and all the writing available out there just echoes that. Philosophers and scientists have written about this same problem in different ways for ages, and have struggled in vain to get a grip on it, many end up running in circles. So far they don’t know the answer, and neither do I. The best any offer is elucidation of aspects of the problem and at occasionally some hints of things that they think might somehow be connected with the answer. There exists no answer or explanation yet.

There is no magic in the brain. The circuitry involved in feeling something is capable of being described, replicated and even manufactured. It is possible to find out how to make a conscious circuit, even if we still don’t know what consciousness is or how it works, via replication, reverse engineering or evolutionary development. We manage to make conscious children several times every second.

How far can we go? Having studied a lot of what is written, it is clear that even after a lot of smart people thinking a long time about it, there is a great deal of confusion out there, and at least some of it comes basically from trying to use too big words and some comes from trying to analyse too much at once. When it is so obvious that it is a tough problem, simplifying it will undoubtedly help.  So let’s narrow it down a bit.

Feeling needs to be separated out from all the other things going on. What is it that happens that makes something feel? Well, detecting something pre-empts feeling it, and interpreting it or thinking about it comes later. So, ignore the detection and interpretation and thinking bits for now. Even sensation can be modelled as solicitation of feeling, essentially adding qualitative information to it. We ought to be able to make an abstraction model as for any IT system, where feeling is a distinct layer, coming between the physical detection layer and sensation, well below any of the layers associated with thinking or analysis.

Many believe that very simple organisms can detect stimuli and react to them, but can’t feel,  but more sophisticated ones can. Logical deduction tells us either that feeling may require fairly complex neural networks but certainly well below human levels, or alternatively, feeling may not be fundamentally linked to complexity but may emerge from architectural differences that arose in parallel with increasing complexity but aren’t dependent on it. It is also very likely due to evolutionary mechanisms that feeling emerges from similar structures to detection, though not the same. Architectural modifications, feedbacks, or additions to detection circuits might be an excellent point to start looking.

So we don’t know the answer, but we do have some good clues. Better than nothing. Coming at it from a philosophical direction, even the smartest people quickly get tied in knots, but from an engineering direction, I think the problem is soluble.

If feeling is, as I believe, a modified detection system, then we could for example seed an evolutionary design system with detection systems. Mutating, restructuring and rearranging detection systems and adding occasional random components here and there might eventually create some circuits that feel. It did in nature, and would in an evolutionary design system, given time. But how would we know? An evolutionary design system needs some means of selection to distinguish the more successful branches for further development.

Using feedback loops would probably help. A system with built in feedback so that it feels that it is feeling something would be symmetrical, maybe even fractal. Self-reinforcement of a feeling process would also create a little vortex of activity. A simple detection system (with detection of detection) would not exhibit such strong activity peaks due to necessary lack of symmetry in detection of initial and processed stimuli. So all we need do is to introduce feedback loops in each architecture and look for the emergence of activity peaks. Possibly, some non-feeling architectures might also show activity peaks so not all peaks would necessarily show successes, but all successes would show peaks.

So, the evolutionary system would take basic detection circuits as input, modify them, add random components, then connect them in simple symmetrical feedback loops. Most results would do nothing. Some would show self-reinforcement, evidenced by activity peaks. Those are the ones we need.

The output from such an evolutionary design system would be circuits that feel (and some junk). We have our basic components. Now we can start to make a conscious computer.

Let’s go back to the gel computing idea and plug them in. We have some basic detectors, for light, sound, touch etc. Pretty simple stuff, but we connect those to our new feeling circuits, so now those inputs stop being just information and become sensations. We add in some storage, recording the inputs, again with some feeling circuits added into the mix, and just for fun, let’s make those recording circuits replay those inputs over and over, indefinitely. Those sensations will be felt again and again, the memory relived. Our primitive little computer can already remember and experience things it has experienced before. Now add in some processing. When a and b happen, c results. Nothing complicated. Just the sort of primitive summation of inputs we know neurons can do all the time. But now, when that processing happens, our computer brain feels it. It feels that it is doing some thinking. It feels the stimuli occurring, a result occurring. And as it records and replays it, an experience builds. It now has knowledge. It may not be the answer to life the universe and everything just yet, but knowledge it is. It now knows and remembers the experience that when it links these two inputs, it gets that output. These processes and recordings and replays and further processing and storage and replays echo throughout the whole system. The sensory echoes and neural interference patterns result in some areas of reinforcement and some of cancellation. Concepts form. The whole process is sensed by the brain. It is thinking, processing, reliving memories, linking inputs and results into concepts and knowledge, storing concepts, and most importantly, it is feeling itself doing so.

The rest is just design detail. There’s your conscious computer.

Things that don’t work but could

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Street lights, quality of life, and the UK space industry

I wrote a long time ago about the problem caused by excessive street lighting and sky glow that prevented a whole generation from growing up with the experience of awe induced in anyone looking up at a clear night sky.

Well, we now have many councils turning off street lights as early as 9pm, to reduce CO2 emissions, making streets dark, to the annoyance of many people and the delight of others, including me.  Carbon emissions are one of the lesser problems facing us, and the carbon emissions this avoids will have an immeasurably small effect on the environment. But the law of unintended consequences this time acts in favour of science, and will even benefit the environment by a convoluted route nothing to do with the one intended.

Anyway, we can see stars again, and it’s wonderful. Hooray! Keep the lights off – not on motorways though, very different situation there.

When people look at the stars, and see a whole sky full of them, they can’t help but think about their place in the universe. They start to wonder what’s out there, whether we are alone, whether they matter and their place in the grand scheme of things, whether even humans matter. They wonder about going out there, visiting, their kids maybe being space travellers. There are very few science teachers who can match the raw inspiration of looking at a clear sky full of stars. Suddenly everyone is a Hawking or at least a Cox, or maybe even a budding Armstrong. Apart from that, seeing a rich clear sky directly improves our quality of life.

Turning off the lights will drag many people of the isolation induced by modern life. It will expand their minds and make them think further. It will encourage many kids to do science and engineering, helping our economy prosper. Some will be inspired to become scientists looking at nature, and will help the environment as a result. Many others will be made aware of the smallness and vulnerability of the Earth. Some will want to go into space, or become engineers developing space technology. Or entrepreneurs looking at the potential for exploration and commercial exploitation.

In short, although done for the wrong reasons, turning off the street lights will bring great rewards. It will make us happy, more curious about the universe, more concerned about the fragility of the Earth, more determined to protect it, but more aware of the external factors driving things. And it will act as a recruitment drive for a generation of space scientists and space engineers and even astronauts.

Turning off the street lights will greatly increase the number of awe and wonder experiences people feel, and could be the biggest boost to the UK space industry we’ve seen in a generation. It would be great if this was intentional and local governments knew what they were doing, but I very much doubt that. It is instead a very happy accident.

The future of time travel: cheat

Time travel comes up frequently in science fiction, and some physicists think it might be theoretically possible, to some degree, within major constraints, at vast expense, between times that are in different universes. Frankly, my physics is rusty and I don’t have any useful contribution to make on how we might do physical time travel, nor on its potential. However, intelligence available to us to figure the full physics out will accelerate dramatically thanks to the artificial intelligence positive feedback loop (smarter machines can build even smarter ones even faster)  and some time later this century we will definitely work out once and for all whether it is doable in real life and how to do it. And we’ll know why we never meet time tourists. If it can be done and done reasonable economically and safely, then it will just be a matter of time to build it after that.

Well, stuff that! Not interested in waiting! If the laws of physics make it so hard that it may never happen and certainly not till at least towards the end of this century, even if it is possible, then let’s bypass the laws of physics. Engineers do that all the time. If you are faced with an infinitely tall impenetrable barrier so you can’t go over it or through it, then check whether the barrier is also very wide, because there may well be an easy route past the barrier that doesn’t require you to go that way. I can’t walk over tall buildings, but I still haven’t found one I couldn’t walk past on the street. There is usually a way past barriers.

And with time travel, that turns out to be the case. There is an easy route past. Physics only controls the physical world. Although physics certain governs the technologies we use to create cyberspace, it doesn’t really limit what you can do in cyberspace any more than in a dream, a costume drama, or a memory.

Cyberspace takes many forms, it is’t homogeneous or even continuous. It has many dimensions. It can be quite alien. But in some areas, such as websites, archives are kept and you can look at how a site was in the past. Extend that to social networking and a problem immediately appears. How can you communicate or interact with someone if the site you are on is just an historical snapshot and isn’t live? How could you go back and actually chat to someone or play a game against them?

The solution to this problem is a tricky technological one but it is entirely  possible, and it won’t violate any physics. If you want to go back in time and interact with people as they were, then all you need is to have an archive of those people. Difficult, but possible. In cyberspace.

Around 2050, we should be starting to do direct brain links, at least in the lab and maybe a bit further. Not just connections to the optic nerve or inner ear, or chips to control wheelchairs, we already have that. And we already have basic thought recognition. By 2050 we will be starting to do full links, that allow thoughts to pass both ways between man and machine, so that the machine world is effectively an extension of your brain.

As people’s thoughts, memories and even sensations become more cyberspace based, as they will, the physical body will become less relevant. (Some of my previous blogs have considered the implication of this for immortality). Once stuff is in the IT world, it can be copied, and backed up. That gives us the potential to make recordings of people’s entire lives, and capable of effectively replicating them at will. Today we have web archives that try to do that with web sites so you can access material on older versions of them. Tomorrow we’ll also be able to include people in that. Virtually replicating the buildings and other stuff would be pretty trivial by comparison.

In that world, it will be possible for your mind, which is itself an almost entirely online entity, to interact with historic populations, essentially to time travel. Right back to the date when they were started being backed up, some time after 2050. The people they would be dealing with would be the same actual people that existed then, exactly as they were, perfect copies. They would behave and respond exactly the same. So you could use this technique to time travel back to 2050 at the very best but no earlier. And for a proper experience it would be much later, say 2100.

And then it starts to get interesting. In an electronic timeline such as that, the interactions you have with those people in the last would have two options. They could be just time tourism  or social research, or other archaeology, which has no lasting effect, and any traces of your trip would vanish when you leave. Or they could be more effectual. The interactions you have when you visit could ripple all the way back through the timeline to your ‘present?’, or future? or was it the past when you were present in the future? (it is really hard to choose the right words tenses when you write about time travel!!). The computers could make it all real, running the entire society through its course, at a greatly accelerated speed. The interactions could therefore be quite real, and all the interactions and all the minds and the rippling social effects could all be implemented. But the possibilities branch again, because although that could be true, and the future society could be genuinely changed, that could also be done by entirely replicating the cyberworld, and implementing the effects only in the parallel new cyber-universe. Doing either of these effectual options might prove very expensive, and obviously dangerous. Replicating things can be done, but you need a lot of computer power and storage to do it with everything affected, so it might be severely restricted. And policed.

But importantly, this sort of time travel could be done – you could go back in time to change the present. All the minds of all the people could be changed by someone going back in the past cyberspace records and doing something that would ripple forwards through time to change those same minds. It couldn’t be made fully clean, because some people for example might choose not to have kids in the revised edition, and although the cyberspace presence of their minds could be changed or deleted, you’d still have to dispose of their physical bodies and tidy up other physical residual effects. But not being clean is one of the things we’d expect for time travel. There would be residues, mess, paradoxes, and presumably this would all limit the things you’d be allowed to mess with. And we will need the time cops and time detectives and licenses and time cleaners and administrators and so on. But in our future cyberspace world, TIME TRAVEL WILL BE POSSIBLE. I can’t shout that loud enough. And please don’t ignore the italics, I am absolutely not suggesting it will be doable in the real world.

Fun! Trouble is, I’m going to be 90 in 2050 so I probably won’t have the energy any more.

The world is more complex than it seems. AARRGGHH!

Thanks @AKPosthuman for the title. I’ll be largely preaching to the converted here, but never mind.

Life seems to be cyclical in all sorts of ways. The one phasing me today is that all of a sudden I feel less sure about lots of things I was certain about a few years ago. Science, political allegiance, world order, basic values, even basic questions like who the hell am I really?

You start of as a child and know sod all, but by the time you’re out of nappies you persuade yourself (and fail to persuade your parents) that you know everything. Then you go to school and discover there are deeper problems than counting to ten. At each stage of qualifications you get to a point where you start thinking you understand stuff, or at least must be getting close. But it is an illusion. You only ever get to understand the answers to some of the questions you’ve been made aware of so far. A bit more education and a whole new range of questions appears. A garden snail is probably confident that it understands the world fine. And it does, it has answers to all it wonders about, it just doesn’t ask deep questions (guessing a bit here, I don’t really know what a snail thinks). It may well be true that ignorance is bliss. It certainly needs less effort.

After graduation, you get chucked in at the deep end in work, and are exposed to the full reality that you are a mere novice in a world of experts. A decade later, you’re starting to catch up and hopefully pushing ahead in at least some tiny areas. A decade after that, you’re flying high, in your own head at least. You’re confident in your field, understand how the world works, the arguments for and against X,Y and Z, and which is right. You have a well stocked basket of opinions on just about everything of importance to you, you know which flag to salute, who you are, what matters, what you believe and what you know to be trash. You know who to look up to, and who is full of crap. You know there is more to learn, that the world is much bigger and more complex than you thought, but that just drives you on, it’s what life is about.

And then you start to realise it isn’t even that simple. Just as you thought you realised the world was more complex than you thought, but you could allow for that, but you were at least starting to get the beginnings of a grip, you discover it is actually far more complex than you thought. Well, that’s where I realised I am this morning. Another cycle of discovery, starting all over again. I have to re-evaluate the whole damn thing from scratch again with revised thinking.

AKposthuman assures me that this is becoming wiser. God I hope he’s right. I’d hate to think my brain is decaying and yesterday’s easy problems now look hard because of that. If I can persuade myself  that what I’m seeing is just a glimpse of the next level of questions, and see how damned frightening it is, then I’ll be fine.

Thanks AK. Wonder if I’ll live long enough to see the start of the next cycle?