Category Archives: politics

HS2 is world class stupidity

£106Bn is the new estimated cost of HS2, with a new delivery date of 2040

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/20/hs2-costs-government-review-west-midlands-manchester-leeds

We hear figures in the billions all the time, and I guess politicians especially lose their sense of what they really mean. A few billion here, another few billion there, so £106Bn just sounds like a decent sized public infrastructure project, equivalent to a few power stations, what’s the big deal? Let’s do some simple sums to find out and get some perspective.

The money has to come from tax and regardless of the diverse routes it takes, people ultimately pay all that tax. There are 66.5 million people in the UK, so that’s only £1600 each. Most of those people will never or hardly ever use HS2.

However, according to the Office of National Statistics, HMRC, only 31.2 million of those people pay income tax, so they contribute an average £3400 each. But actually the top 50% of those, 15.6 million people, pay 90% of the tax, so that means HS2 will effectively cost them £95.4Bn, a whopping £6115 each. I could go more sums but you get the point.

It’s a fair bet that the half of UK taxpayers paying over £6000 each for HS2 could write a long list of things they’d rather have than the option to buy an expensive rail ticket that might save some people, but probably not them, 20 minutes on a journey to London, but for most people might actually take them longer if they have first to get a slow train to one of the privileged HS2 stations.

6000 quid, each, 12k for a professional couple. For a slightly faster train? Remember, the original spec was for very fast trains, but they had to wind the speed down because it was discovered that trains might sometimes derail due to lethal combinations of aerodynamics and subsidence, so the realistic spec is about 150mph, compared to 125mph for a normal intercity.

This is the economics of the madhouse.

Trains are 19th and 20th century technology. 21st century technology allows driverless pod systems that would be far cheaper, far more versatile, far more socially inclusive, and far faster end to end. Pods could carry people or freight. Pod systems could start off mixing with conventional trains by grouping to make virtual trains. As antique old stock is gradually upgraded, along with stations, we would end up with a totally pod-based transport system. Pods could just as easily run on roads as on rails. The rails could be ripped up and recycled, railways tarmacked over, and public transport could seamlessly run on roads or the old railways. With potential occupancy of up to 95%, compared to the 0.4% typical of conventional rail, the old railways could carry 237 times more traffic! That wouldn’t eliminate congestion – there would still be some choke points – but it would make one hell of a dent in it. It would be faster because someone could have a pod pick them up at their home or office, maybe swap onto a shared one at a local node, and then go all the way to their destination at a good speed, with hardly any delays en-route, now waiting for the next scheduled train or having to make pointless journeys to get to a mainline station. They could simply go straight to where they want, and save much more time than HS2 would ever have saved.

Pod systems could serve the whole country, not just the lucky few living near the right stations. Fixing ‘the North-South divide’ still favours pod systems, not HS2. Everyone benefits from pods, hardly anyone benefits from HS2. Everyone saves money with pods, everyone is worse off with HS2. Why is the idea still flying?

The problem we have is that too few of our politicians or senior civil servants have any real understanding of technology and its potential. They are blinded by seeing figures in billions sever day, so have lost their understanding of just how much £100Bn is. They are terrified of pressure groups and always eager to be seen to be doing something, however stupid that something might be if they examined it.

HS2 is a stupid idea, world-class stupidity. It is 20th century technology, an old idea long past its use-by date. It locks in all the huge disadvantages and costs of old-style rail for several more decades We should leapfrog over it and go instead for a 21st century solution – cheap driverless pods. We’d save a fortune and have a far superior result.

 

 

Apocalypse Tomorrow

This post was co-authored with Bronwyn Williams (details below)

I recently watched a documentary about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 918 Peoples Temple followers died, many of them children, killed by their own parents. Before it even started, my own memories of it in the news made me realize that the current global socio-political climate makes such an ‘unthinkable’ event likely to happen again, possibly on a much bigger scale, perhaps even in several places at once.

The biggest factor by far is the global replacement of religion (mostly Christianity) by secular religion substitutes. These secular substitutes for the meaning, direction and purpose formerly provided by religion take many forms, from a revived interest in paganism, witchcraft, and general “no name brand” spiritualism and mysticism, through to a new almost religious fervor for political causes. Now, while finding solace for the horror of the human condition in crystals or astrology is relatively benign (unless you are getting into debt betting your children’s school fees on the stocks recommended in your daily horoscope app, for example); mass movements driven by tribes of True Believers, are far more concerning.

New converts to any mass movement – religious or secular – are invariably among the most passionate believers, so we now have a massive and global pool of people newly susceptible to the same forces that enabled Jim Jones to do what he did. Every day on social media we witness first hand that enthusiasm, driving the secular equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition and targeting anyone and everyone not devoutly following every detail of their new faith. Jones strongly policed his followers and strictly punished any rule breaking or heresy. That same practice is greatly amplified in social media, to billions of people instead of the thousand followers Jones had influence on.

I’ve written many times about the strong similarities between religion and belief in catastrophic climate change, environmentalism, woke doctrine, veganism, New Ageism, and others. All these triggers tap in to the same anchors in human nature, first of which makes people want to believe they are ‘good people’ on the right side of history; the second of which is tribalism, the basic human instinct of wanting to belong to a group of like-thinking people, while clearly marking the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. At the same time, as people are forced to decide which side to stand on, the gulf between the “us” and ‘them’ is always widening, amplifying both the fear of – and the real consequences of – being cut out of the circle of trust of their chosen tribe, just as Jim Jones did.

Importantly, the scientific truth and proven facts behind these causes are less important than how the causes make the new true believers feel; particularly when it comes to signalling the moral superiority of the in group compared to the infidel, unconverted out-group.  As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, for the adherents of most mass movements, “The effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.”.

Now, these tribal drivers are immensely strong forces, the likes of which have underpinned crusades and wars since the days of ancient civilizations. Now that far fewer people believe in formal religions, many of those who previously would have been enthusiastic believers have turned instead to these secular substitutes that push the same psychological buttons. Another documentary this week on veganism shows exactly the same forces at play being harnessed as in religion – secular equivalent to sin, shaming sinners, fear of rejection, tribalism, and especially demonstrating the impact of a charismatic ‘priest’. Jones was highly charismatic, and a master at using these forces. Compare the influence today that a single person can have in pushing a particular agenda in the name of social justice or climate change action.

Fear was a very powerful weapon used constantly by Jones, and today’s climate catastrophists do all they can to ensure as many other people share their fear as possible. It seems that every negative news item is somehow tied to ‘climate change’. If the climate isn’t enough, rising seas, ocean acidification, plastic pollution are all linked in to enhance the total fear, exaggerating wildly while a scared media lets them get away with it. Millions of people now pressurize governments and social media, screaming and shrieking “DO SOMETHING, NOW!!!!!”. Jones enhanced fear by talking frequently about death, even using mock suicides to amplify the general climate of fear. Now, witness the frequent death cult demonstrations of animal rights protesters and climate change catastrophists. Extinction rebellion excel in this area, with their blood-red meta-religious uniforms. It is impossible not to see parallels with Jones’ cult followers.

Jones was also adept in creating fake news. He used fake healings and even a fake resurrection to amplify faith and ensure his reign as leader. Fake news in today’s work is virtually indistinguishable from reality, and worse still many people don’t care, as long as it backs up what they already believe.

Another strong parallel is socialism. Jones gift-wrapped his cult in socialism Utopianism. Most people won’t join a movement just from fear alone, there needs to be a strong attractor to get them to join up, and fear can keep them there afterwards. Today we see a new enthusiasm among young people (a gospel enthusiastically spread to young minds via their state school teachers) for socialism. Via skillful use of Orwell’s doublespeak, with activists redefining words over a decade or more, they are presented with all the wonderful Utopian claims of ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, ‘love’, ‘tolerance’ and so on, while non-believers are listed as ‘evil’, ‘deplorable’, ‘fascists’, and ‘deniers’. Even the USA is seeing strong enthusiasm for socialism and even communism, something that would have been impossible to imagine just 25 years ago.

Socialism, environmental catastrophism and religious fervor make a powerful trio. Promised salvation, status and utopia if you follow, doom and catastrophic punishment such as social ostracizing and career destruction on the light end, and complete civilizational and environmental collapse if you don’t.

Other forces still add to this. Generations raised on social media and social credit scores (both official and unofficial) are rewarded (in status and income) for narcissism and self-censorship and reversion to the group mean. This, of course, further reinforces echo-chamber group-think and a sincere, yet unfounded superiority complex, creating a tribal inter-generational hostility to older people that prevents them from accepting accumulated wisdom. They happily absorb emotional fake news and distortion as long as it massages their need for affirmation. Likes outweigh facts any day. Indeed, even holding a PhD is no longer an effective immunization against collective delusion, in a world where social scientists are punished with their careers for publishing results of scientific studies that falsify popular politically correct consensus opinions (As Eric Hoffer said, “There is an illiterate air about the most literate true believer.”)

Self-hate is another powerful trend; the dishonor of being born Western (or even more damningly, male) has strong Biblical parallels to man being born into sin; and the need to recognize, confess and atone for the sins of one’s birth and forefathers.

So where does this take us?

Jones was highly charismatic. He was a natural master of using strong emotional forces built into human nature. History has many examples of equally charismatic leaders (from Obama to Oprah), who used their charm and power for good. (Unfortunately, history also provides us with myriad of converse examples, from Hitler and Stalin to Jones). It likely that we will now see new leaders emerge to galvanize today’s new tribes of true believers. Whether the new leaders exploit the passion of the masses for good or ill; or march them to the Promised Land or into a catastrophic Great Leap forward into famine, disaster and mass death, only time will tell.

Already, we have heard many activists talk about how we need to greatly reduce human population. As an example, just days ago, The Guardian published this article. The radical vegan anti-natalist movement, advocating for the extinction of the human race as the only way to save planet Earth is growing in popularity around the (mostly Western) self-hating world. Some activists have even suggested mass-killing climate change deniers.

Similarly, controversially, there is a related emerging enthusiasm for abortion. Far beyond a woman’s right to choice and autonomy over her own body, the new celebration of abortion – not as a woman’s right, but as something actively encouraged and applauded by extreme environmentalists- marks a distinct turning point in society’s values towards human life in general.  Would-have-been parents claim they are so sure about climate doom that they can’t bear to bring a child into this world; similarly, young men are getting vasectomies as a sign of commitment to their cause (not unlike religious circumcision). It’s voluntary sterilization as virtue signalling, as a political message, sacrificing a child to make a point.  Abortion rates may well start to rise again after a long steady decline as Climatism makes its mark.

(Indeed, the anti-fertility campaigns of Western aid and health workers in low income African and Asian countries is symptomatic of how human life is increasingly perceived as a form of pestilence, to be minimized, if not eradicated (by its own kind if necessary); rather than something intrinsically valuable.)

Following along these lines, we can see echoes of Jonestown. At the end, Jones made sure that adults gave poison to their kids first before taking it themselves. He knew that if parents had deliberately killed their kids, they would be much more likely to kill themselves.

Imagine therefore that a new charismatic leader were to spring up, adept at social media and in manipulating language, emotions, and people. Imagine that they were to gain a large following across the English-speaking world. That they advocate reducing human population, targeting heretic ‘climate change deniers’, reducing carbon footprint via vegetarianism, veganism, giving reparations to developing countries for climate damage, supporting no-borders to allow anyone to immigrate as a ‘climate refugee’, encouraging abortion to reduce birth rate. Such a package would find a very large audience who demonstrably want to feel holy, that they are good while others are evil. A charismatic leader could thereby create a strong tribe. Using abundant funding from the membership, they might well build socialist Utopian towns. Maybe in a jungle like Jones, but just as likely out in the wilds in Canada, the USA, or Australia, a Scottish island, or all of these. Perhaps they could have hundreds of thousands of people join, with millions more online ‘associates’. Millions compared to Jonestown’s thousand.

And then perhaps, in the end, to force the rest of humanity to listen by means of a coordinated mass suicide, to go down in history as martyrs to the environment, saviors of the Earth.

Is an anti-civilizational suicide pact inevitable? No, not at all.

But imaginable, feasible, perhaps even likely? In my opinion, yes it is. And it could well happen in the next few years, while this perfect storm of forces is peaking.

About Bronwyn Williams

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst, who consults to business and government leaders on how to understand the world we live in today and change the world’s trajectory for tomorrow. She is also a regular media commentator on African socio-economic affairs. For more, visit http://whatthefuturenow.com

 

 

The future of reproductive choice

I’m not taking sides on the abortion debate, just drawing maps of the potential future, so don’t shoot the messenger.

An average baby girl is born with a million eggs, still has 300,000 when she reaches puberty, and subsequently releases 300 – 400 of these over her reproductive lifetime. Typically one or two will become kids but today a woman has no way of deciding which ones, and she certainly has no control over which sperm is used beyond choosing her partner.

Surely it can’t be very far in the future (as a wild guess, say 2050) before we fully understand the links between how someone is and their genetics (and all the other biological factors involved in determining outcome too). That knowledge could then notionally be used to create some sort of nanotech (aka magic) gate that would allow her to choose which of her eggs get to be ovulated and potentially fertilized, wasting ones she isn’t interested in and going for it when she’s released a good one. Maybe by 2060, women would also be able to filter sperm the same way, helping some while blocking others. Choice needn’t be limited to whether to have a baby or not, but which baby.

Choosing a particularly promising egg and then which sperm would combine best with it, an embryo might be created only if it is likely to result in the right person (perhaps an excellent athlete, or an artist, or a scientist, or just good looking), or deselected if it would become the wrong person (e.g. a terrorist, criminal, saxophonist, Republican).

However, by the time we have the technology to do that, and even before we fully know what gene combos result in what features, we would almost certainly be able to simply assemble any chosen DNA and insert it into an egg from which the DNA has been removed. That would seem a more reliable mechanism to get the ‘perfect’ baby than choosing from a long list of imperfect ones. Active assembly should beat deselection from a random list.

By then, we might even be using new DNA bases that don’t exist in nature, invented by people or AI to add or control features or abilities nature doesn’t reliably provide for.

If we can do that, and if we know how to simulate how someone might turn out, then we could go further and create lots of electronic babies that live their entire lives in an electronic Matrix style existence. Let’s expand on that briefly.

Even today, couples can store eggs and sperm for later use, but with this future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomize combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to buy listings of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’ – DNA listings are not alive so current laws don’t forbid trading in them. These listings could however be used to create electronic ‘virtual’offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. If an electronic baby turns out particularly well, it might be promoted to actual life via DNA assembly and real pregnancy. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

It is clear that this whole technology field is rich in ethical issues! But we don’t need to go deep into future tech to find more of those. Just following current political trends to their logical conclusions introduces a lot more. I’ve written often on the random walk of values, and we cannot be confident that many values we hold today will still reign in decades time. Where might this random walk lead? Let’s explore some more.

Even in ‘conventional’ pregnancies, although the right to choose has been firmly established in most of the developed world, a woman usually has very little information about the fetus and has to make her decision almost entirely based on her own circumstances and values. The proportion of abortions related to known fetal characteristics such as genetic conditions or abnormalities is small. Most decisions can’t yet take any account of what sort of person that fetus might become. We should expect future technology to provide far more information on fetus characteristics and likely future development. Perhaps if a woman is better informed on likely outcomes, might that sometimes affect her decision, in either direction?

In some circumstances, potential outcome may be less certain and an informed decision might require more time or more tests. To allow for that without reducing the right to choose, is possible future law could allow for conditional terminations, registered before a legal time limit but performed later (before another time limit) when more is known. This period could be used for more medical tests, or to advertise the baby to potential adopters that want a child just like that one, or simply to allow more time for the mother to see how her own circumstances change. Between 2005 and 2015, USA abortion rate dropped from 1 in 6 pregnancies to 1 in 7, while in the UK, 22% of pregnancies are terminated. What would these figures be if women could determine what future person would result? Would termination rate increase? To 30%, 50%? Abandon this one and see if we can make a better one? How many of us would exist if our parents had known then what they know now?

Whether and how late terminations should be permitted is still fiercely debated. There is already discussion about allowing terminations right up to birth and even after birth in particular circumstances. If so, then why stop there? We all know people who make excellent arguments for retrospective abortion. Maybe future parents should be allowed to decide whether to keep a child right up until it reaches its teens, depending on how the child turns out. Why not 16, or 18, or even 25, when people truly reach adulthood? By then they’d know what kind of person they’re inflicting on the world. Childhood and teen years could simply be a trial period. And why should only the parents have a say? Given an overpopulated world with an infinite number of potential people that could be brought into existence, perhaps the state could also demand a high standard of social performance before assigning a life license. The Chinese state already uses surveillance technology to assign social scores. It is a relatively small logical step further to link that to life licenses that require periodic renewal. Go a bit further if you will, and link that thought to the blog I just wrote on future surveillance: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/future-surveillance/.

Those of you who have watched Logan’s Run will be familiar with the idea of  compulsory termination at a certain age. Why not instead have a flexible age that depends on social score? It could range from zero to 100. A pregnancy might only be permitted if the genetic blueprint passes a suitability test and then as nurture and environmental factors play their roles as a person ages, their life license could be renewed (or not) every year. A range of crimes might also result in withdrawal of a license, and subsequent termination.

Finally, what about AI? Future technology will allow us to make hybrids, symbionts if you like, with a genetically edited human-ish body, and a mind that is part human, part AI, with the AI acting partly as enhancement and partly as a control system. Maybe the future state could insist that installation into the embryo of a state ‘guardian’, a ‘supervisory AI’, essentially a deeply embedded police officer/judge/jury/executioner will be required to get the life license.

Random walks are dangerous. You can end up where you start, or somewhere very far away in any direction.

The legal battles and arguments around ‘choice’ won’t go away any time soon. They will become broader, more complex, more difficult, and more controversial.

Future Surveillance

This is an update of my last surveillance blog 6 years ago, much of which is common discussion now. I’ll briefly repeat key points to save you reading it.

They used to say

“Don’t think it

If you must think it, don’t say it

If you must say it, don’t write it

If you must write it, don’t sign it”

Sadly this wisdom is already as obsolete as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. The last three lines have already been automated.

I recently read of new headphones designed to recognize thoughts so they know what you want to listen to. Simple thought recognition in various forms has been around for 20 years now. It is slowly improving but with smart networked earphones we’re already providing an easy platform into which to sneak better monitoring and better though detection. Sold on convenience and ease of use of course.

You already know that Google and various other large companies have very extensive records documenting many areas of your life. It’s reasonable to assume that any or all of this could be demanded by a future government. I trust Google and the rest to a point, but not a very distant one.

Your phone, TV, Alexa, or even your networked coffee machine may listen in to everything you say, sending audio records to cloud servers for analysis, and you only have naivety as defense against those audio records being stored and potentially used for nefarious purposes.

Some next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and UHD cameras that can even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions and gaze direction while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow and pulse via your Fitbit or smartwatch, and additionally monitoring skin conductivity, your level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify pedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, and it is likely that that will be one of the justifications authorities will use for its use.

Millimetre wave scanning was once controversial when it was introduced in airport body scanners, but we have had no choice but to accept it and its associated abuses –  the only alternative is not to fly. 5G uses millimeter wave too, and it’s reasonable to expect that the same people who can already monitor your movements in your home simply by analyzing your wi-fi signals will be able to do a lot better by analyzing 5G signals.

As mm-wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN.

Add to this the ability to use drones to get close without being noticed. Drones can be very small, fly themselves and automatically survey an area using broad sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NFC bank and credit cards not only present risks of theft, but also the added ability to track what we spend, where, on what, with whom. NFC capability in your phone makes some parts of life easier, but NFC has always been yet another doorway that may be left unlocked by security holes in operating systems or apps and apps themselves carry many assorted risks. Many apps ask for far more permissions than they need to do their professed tasks, and their owners collect vast quantities of information for purposes known only to them and their clients. Obviously data can be collected using a variety of apps, and that data linked together at its destination. They are not all honest providers, and apps are still very inadequately regulated and policed.

We’re seeing increasing experimentation with facial recognition technology around the world, from China to the UK, and only a few authorities so far such as in San Francisco have had the wisdom to ban its use. Heavy handed UK police, who increasingly police according to their own political agenda even at the expense of policing actual UK law, have already fined people who have covered themselves to avoid being abused in face recognition trials. It is reasonable to assume they would gleefully seize any future opportunity to access and cross-link all of the various data pools currently being assembled under the excuse of reducing crime, but with the real intent of policing their own social engineering preferences. Using advanced AI to mine zillions of hours of full-sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure and extensive and ubiquitous video surveillance, they could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state.

It doesn’t even stop with public cameras. Innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street private surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone, sometimes with benign declared intentions such as making self-driving vehicles safer, sometimes using social media tribes to capture any kind of evidence against ‘the other’. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of real or invented crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

The current panic about face recognition is justified. Other AI can lipread better than people and recognize gestures and facial expressions better than people. It adds the knowledge of everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything you do, everything you say and even every emotional reaction to all of that to all the other knowledge gathered online or by your mobile, fitness band, electronic jewelry or other accessories.

Fools utter the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to anyone for any reason ever? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not the abuses we already see. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions and police authorities who consider themselves better than the law. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but rarely malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, only a few are corrupt, but most are technologically inept . With an increasingly divided society, there’s a strong chance that the ‘wrong’ government or even a dictatorship could get in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We’ve already lost the battle to defend privacy. The only bits left are where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Pretty much everything about you will be available to an AI-upskilled state and its police.

Who controls AI, controls the world

This week, the fastest supercomputer broke a world record for AI, using machine learning in climate research:

https://www.wired.com/story/worlds-fastest-supercomputer-breaks-ai-record/

I guess most readers thought this is a great thing, after all we need to solve climate change. That wasn’t my thought. The first thing my boss told me when I used a computer for the first time was: “shit in, shit out”. I don’t remember his name but I remember that concise lesson every time I read about climate models. If either the model or the data is garbage, or both, the output will also be garbage.

So my first thought reading about this new record was: will they let the AI work everything out for itself using all the raw, unadjusted data available about the environment, including all the astrophysics data about every kind of solar activity, human agricultural, industrial activities, air travel, all the unadjusted measurements of or proxies for surface, sea and air temperatures, ever collected, any empirical evidence for any corrections that might be needed on such data in any direction, and then let it make its own deductions, form its own models of how it might all connected and then watch eagerly as it makes predictions?

Or will they just input their own models, CO2 blinkering, prejudices and group-think, adjusted datasets, data omissions and general distortions of historical records into biased models already indoctrinated with climate change dogma, so that it will reconfirm the doom and gloom forecasts we’re so used to hearing, maximizing their chances of continued grants? If they do that, the AI might as well be a cardboard box with a pre-written article stuck on it. Shit in, shit out.

It’s obvious that the speed and capability of the supercomputer is of secondary important to who controls the AI, and its access to data, and its freedom to draw its own conclusions.

(Read my blog on Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/)

You may recall a week or two ago that IBM released a new face database to try to address bias in AI face recognition systems. Many other kinds of data could have biases for all sorts of reasons. At face value reducing bias is a good thing, but what exactly do we mean by that? Who decides what is biased and what is real? There are very many potential AI uses that are potentially sensitive, such as identifying criminals or distinguishing traits that correlate with gender, sexuality, race, religion, or indeed any discernible difference. Are all deductions by the AI permissible, or are huge swathes of possible deductions not permitted because they might be politically unacceptable? Who controls the AI? Why? With what aims?

Many people have some degree of influence on  AI. Those who provide funding, equipment, theoreticians, those who design hardware, those who design the learning and training mechanisms, those who supply the data, those who censor or adjust data before letting the AI see it, those who design the interfaces, those who interpret and translate the results, those who decide which results are permissible and how to spin them, and publish them.

People are often impressed when a big powerful computer outputs results of massive amounts of processing. Outputs may often be used to control public opinion and government policy, to change laws, to alter balance of power in society, to create and destroy empires. AI will eventually make or influence most decisions of any consequence.

As AI techniques become more powerful, running on faster and better computers, we must always remember that golden rule: shit in, shit out. And we must always be suspicious of those who might have reason to influence an outcome.

Because who controls AI, controls the world.

 

 

The caravan and migration policy

20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else?  Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:

People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or  global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.

In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.

Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?

We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.

International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.

These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.

So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.

Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.

Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.

What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4656370/sen-barack-obama-illegal-immigration

Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:

Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc. 

Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.

So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop  misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.

Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.

Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.

That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.

The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.

This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.

However:

My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.

Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.

Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.

 

Monopoly and diversity laws should surely apply to political views too

With all the calls for staff diversity and equal representation, one important area of difference has so far been left unaddressed: political leaning. In many organisations, the political views of staff don’t matter. Nobody cares about the political views of staff in a double glazing manufacturer because they are unlikely to affect the qualities of a window. However, in an organisation that has a high market share in TV, social media or internet search, or that is a government department or a public service, political bias can have far-reaching effects. If too many of its staff and their decisions favor a particular political view, it is danger of becoming what is sometimes called ‘the deep state’. That is, their everyday decisions and behaviors might privilege one group over another. If most of their colleagues share similar views, they might not even be aware of their bias, because they are the norm in their everyday world. They might think they are doing their job without fear of favor but still strongly preference one group of users over another.

Staff bias doesn’t only an organisation’s policies, values and decisions. It also affects recruitment and promotion, and can result in increasing concentration of a particular world view until it becomes an issue. When a vacancy appears at board level, remaining board members will tend to promote someone who thinks like themselves. Once any leaning takes hold, near monopoly can quickly result.

A government department should obviously be free of bias so that it can carry out instructions from a democratically elected government with equal professionalism regardless of its political flavor. Employees may be in positions where they can allocate resources or manpower more to one area than another, or provide analysis to ministers, or expedite or delay a communication, or emphasize or dilute a recommendation in a survey, or may otherwise have some flexibility in interpreting instructions and even laws. It is important they do so without political bias so transparency of decision-making for external observers is needed along with systems and checks and balances to prevent and test for bias or rectify it when found. But even if staff don’t deliberately abuse their positions to deliberately obstruct or favor, if a department has too many staff from one part of the political spectrum, normalization of views can again cause institutional bias and behavior. It is therefore important for government departments and public services to have work-forces that reflect the political spectrum fairly, at all levels. A department that implements a policy from a government of one flavor but impedes a different one from a new government of opposite flavor is in strong need of reform and re-balancing. It has become a deep state problem. Bias could be in any direction of course, but any public sector department must be scrupulously fair in its implementation of the services it is intended to provide.

Entire professions can be affected. Bias can obviously occur in any direction but over many decades of slow change, academia has become dominated by left-wing employees, and primary teaching by almost exclusively female ones. If someone spends most of their time with others who share the same views, those views can become normalized to the point that a dedicated teacher might think they are delivering a politically balanced lesson that is actually far from it. It is impossible to spend all day teaching kids without some personal views and values rub off on them. The young have always been slightly idealistic and left leaning – it takes years of adult experience of non-academia to learn the pragmatic reality of implementing that idealism, during which people generally migrate rightwards -but with a stronger left bias ingrained during education, it takes longer for people to unlearn naiveté and replace it with reality. Surely education should be educating kids about all political viewpoints and teaching them how to think so they can choose for themselves where to put their allegiance, not a long process of political indoctrination?

The media has certainly become more politically crystallized and aligned in the last decade, with far fewer media companies catering for people across the spectrum. There are strongly left-wing and right-wing papers, magazines, TV and radio channels or shows. People have a free choice of which papers to read, and normal monopoly laws work reasonably well here, with proper checks when there is a proposed takeover that might result in someone getting too much market share. However, there are still clear examples of near monopoly in other places where fair representation is particularly important. In spite of frequent denials of any bias, the BBC for example was found to have a strong pro-EU/Remain bias for its panel on its flagship show Question Time:

https://iea.org.uk/media/iea-analysis-shows-systemic-bias-against-leave-supporters-on-flagship-bbc-political-programmes/

The BBC does not have a TV or radio monopoly but it does have a very strong share of influence. Shows such as Question Time can strongly influence public opinion so if biased towards one viewpoint could be considered as campaigning for that cause, though their contributions would lie outside electoral commission scrutiny of campaign funding. Many examples of BBC bias on a variety of social and political issues exist. It often faces accusations of bias from every direction, sometimes unfairly, so again proper transparency must exist so that independent external groups can appeal for change and be heard fairly, and change enforced when necessary. The BBC is in a highly privileged position, paid for by a compulsory license fee on pain of imprisonment, and also in a socially and politically influential position. It is doubly important that it proportionally represents the views of the people rather than acting as an activist group using license-payer funds to push the political views of the staff, engaging in their own social engineering campaigns, or otherwise being propaganda machines.

As for private industry, most isn’t in a position of political influence, but some areas certainly are. Social media have enormous power to influence the views its users are exposed to, choosing to filter or demote material they don’t approve of, as well as providing a superb activist platform. Search companies can choose to deliver results according to their own agendas, with those they support featuring earlier or more prominently than those they don’t. If social media or search companies provide different service or support or access according to political leaning of the customer then they can become part of the deep state. And again, with normalization creating the risk of institutional bias, the clear remedy is to ensure that these companies have a mixture of staff representative of social mix. They seem extremely enthusiastic about doing that for other forms of diversity. They need to apply similar enthusiasm to political diversity too.

Achieving it won’t be easy. IT companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter currently have a strong left leaning, though the problem would be just as bad if it were to swing the other direction. Given the natural monopoly tendency in each sector, social media companies should be politically neutral, not deep state companies.

AI being developed to filter posts or decide how much attention they get must also be unbiased. AI algorithmic bias could become a big problem, but it is just as important that bias is judged by neutral bodies, not by people who are biased themselves, who may try to ensure that AI shares their own leaning. I wrote about this issue here: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

But what about government? Today’s big issue in the UK is Brexit. In spite of all its members being elected or reelected during the Brexit process, the UK Parliament itself nevertheless has 75% of MPs to defend the interests of the 48% voting Remain  and only 25% to represent the other 52%. Remainers get 3 times more Parliamentary representation than Brexiters. People can choose who they vote for, but with only candidate available from each party, voters cannot choose by more than one factor and most people will vote by party line, preserving whatever bias exists when parties select which candidates to offer. It would be impossible to ensure that every interest is reflected proportionately but there is another solution. I suggested that scaled votes could be used for some issues, scaling an MP’s vote weighting by the proportion of the population supporting their view on that issue:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/achieving-fair-representation-in-the-new-uk-parliament/

Like company boards, once a significant bias in one direction exists, political leaning tends to self-reinforce to the point of near monopoly. Deliberate procedures need to be put in place to ensure equality or representation, even when people are elected. Obviously people who benefit from current bias will resist change, but everyone loses if democracy cannot work properly.

The lack of political diversity in so many organisations is becoming a problem. Effective government may be deliberately weakened or amplified by departments with their own alternative agendas, while social media and media companies may easily abuse their enormous power to push their own sociopolitical agendas. Proper functioning of democracy requires that this problem is fixed, even if a lot of people like it the way it is.

AI that talks to us could quickly become problematic

Google’s making the news again adding evidence to the unfortunate stereotype of the autistic IT nerd that barely understands normal people, and they have therefore been astonished at the backlash that normal people would all easily have predicted. (I’m autistic and work in IT mostly too, and am well used to the stereotype it so it doesn’t bother me, in fact it is a sort of ‘get out of social interactions free’ card). Last time it was Google Glass, where it apparently didn’t occur to them that people may not want other people videoing them without consent in pubs and changing rooms. This time it is Google Duplex, that makes phone calls on your behalf to arrange appointment using voice that is almost indistinguishable from normal humans. You could save time making an appointment with a hairdresser apparently, so the Googlanders decided it must be a brilliant breakthrough, and expected everyone to agree. They didn’t.

Some of the objections have been about ethics: e.g. An AI should not present itself as human – Humans have rights and dignity and deserve respectful interactions with other people, but an AI doesn’t and should not masquerade as human to acquire such privilege without knowledge of the other party and their consent.

I would be more offended by the presumed attitude of the user. If someone thinks they are so much better then me that they can demand my time and attention without the expense of any of their own, delegating instead to a few microseconds of processing time in a server farm somewhere, I’ll treat them with the contempt they deserve. My response will not be favourable. I am already highly irritated by the NHS using simple voice interaction messaging to check I will attend a hospital appointment. The fact that my health is on the line and notices at surgeries say I will be banned if I complain on social media is sufficient blackmail to ensure my compliance, but it still comes at the expense of my respect and goodwill. AI-backed voice interaction with better voice wouldn’t be any better, and if it asking for more interaction such as actually booking an appointment, it would be extremely annoying.

In any case, most people don’t speak in fully formed grammatically and logically correct sentences. If you listen carefully to everyday chat, a lot of sentences are poorly pronounced, incomplete, jumbled, full of ums and er’s, likes and they require a great deal of cooperation by the listener to make any sense at all. They also wander off topic frequently. People don’t stick to a rigid vocabulary list or lists of nicely selected sentences.  Lots of preamble and verbal meandering is likely in a response that is highly likely to add ambiguity. The example used in a demo, “I’d like to make a hairdressing appointment for a client” sounds fine until you factor in normal everyday humanity. A busy hairdresser or a lazy receptionist is not necessarily going to cooperate fully. “what do you mean, client?”, “404 not found”, “piss off google”, “oh FFS, not another bloody computer”, “we don’t do hairdressing, we do haircuts”, “why can’t your ‘client’ call themselves then?” and a million other responses are more likely than “what time would you like?”

Suppose though that it eventually gets accepted by society. First, call centers beyond the jurisdiction of your nuisance call blocker authority will incessantly call you at all hours asking or telling you all sorts of things, wasting huge amounts of your time and reducing quality of life. Voice spam from humans in call centers is bad enough. If the owners can multiply productivity by 1000 by using AI instead of people, the result is predictable.

We’ve seen the conspicuous political use of social media AI already. Facebook might have allowed companies to use very limited and inaccurate knowledge of you to target ads or articles that you probably didn’t look at. Voice interaction would be different. It uses a richer emotional connection that text or graphics on a screen. Google knows a lot about you too, but it will know a lot more soon. These big IT companies are also playing with tech to log you on easily to sites without passwords. Some gadgets that might be involved might be worn, such as watches or bracelets or rings. They can pick up signals to identify you, but they can also check emotional states such as stress level. Voice gives away emotion too. AI can already tell better then almost all people whether you are telling the truth or lying or hiding something. Tech such as iris scans can also tell emotional states, as well as give health clues. Simple photos can reveal your age quite accurately to AI, (check out how-old.net).  The AI voice sounds human, but it is better then even your best friends at guessing your age, your stress and other emotions, your health, whether you are telling the truth or not, and it knows far more about what you like and dislike and what you really do online than anyone you know, including you. It knows a lot of your intimate secrets. It sounds human, but its nearest human equivalent was probably Machiavelli. That’s who will soon be on the other side of the call, not some dumb chatbot. Now re-calculate political interference, and factor in the political leaning and social engineering desires of the companies providing the tools. Google and Facebook and the others are very far from politically neutral. One presidential candidate might get full cooperation, assistance and convenient looking the other way, while their opponent might meet rejection and citation of the official rules on non-interference. Campaigns on social issues will also be amplified by AI coupled to voice interaction. I looked at some related issue in a previous blog on fake AI (i.e. fake news type issues): https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

I could but won’t write a blog on how this tech could couple well to sexbots to help out incels. It may actually have some genuine uses in providing synthetic companionship for lonely people, or helping or encouraging them in real social interactions with real people. It will certainly have some uses in gaming and chatbot game interaction.

We are not very far from computers that are smarter then people across a very wide spectrum, and probably not very far from conscious machines that have superhuman intelligence. If we can’t even rely on IT companies to understand likely consequences of such obvious stuff as Duplex before thy push it, how can we trust them in other upcoming areas of AI development, or even closer term techs with less obvious consequences? We simply can’t!

There are certainly a few such areas where such technology might help us but most are minor and the rest don’t need any deception, but they all come at great cost or real social and political risk, as well as more abstract risks such as threats to human dignity and other ethical issues. I haven’t give this much thought yet and I am sure there must be very many other consequences I have not touched on yet. Google should do more thinking before they release stuff. Technology is becoming very powerful, but we all know that great power comes with great responsibility, and since most people aren’t engineers so can’t think through all the potential technology interactions and consequences, engineers such as Google’s must act more responsibly. I had hoped they’d started, and they said they had, but this is not evidence of that.

 

Why superhumans are inevitable, and what else comes in the box

Do we have any real choice in the matter of making  super-humans? 20 years ago, I estimated 2005 as the point of no return, and nothing since then has changed my mind on that date. By my reckoning, we are already inevitably committed to designer babies, ebaybies, super-soldiers and super-smart autonomous weapons, direct brain-machine links, electronic immortality, new human races, population explosion, inter-species conflicts and wars with massively powerful weaponry, superhuman conscious AI, smart bacteria, and the only real control we have is relatively minor adjustments on timings. As I was discussing yesterday, the technology potential for this is vast and very exciting, nothing less than a genuine techno-utopia if we use the technologies wisely, but optimum potential doesn’t automatically become reality, and achieving a good outcome is unlikely if many barriers are put in its way.

In my estimation, we have already started the countdown to this group of interconnected technologies – we will very likely get all of them, and we must get ready for the decisions and impacts ahead. At the moment, our society is a small child about to open its super-high-tech xmas presents while fighting with its siblings. Those presents will give phenomenal power far beyond the comprehension of the child or its emotional maturity to equip it to deal with the decisions safely. Our leaders have already squandered decades of valuable preparation time by ignoring the big issues to focus on trivial ones. It is not too late to achieve a good ending, but it won’t happen by accident and we do need to make preparations to avoid pretty big problems.

Both hard and soft warfare – the sword and the pen, already use rapidly advancing AI, and the problems are already running ahead of what the owners intended.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other media giants all have lots of smart people and presumably they mean well, but if so, they have certainly been naive. They maybe hoped to eliminate loneliness, inequality, and poverty and create a loving interconnected global society with global peace, but instead created fake news, social division and conflict and election interference. More likely they didn’t intend either outcome, they just wanted to make money and that took priority over due care and attention..

Miniaturising swarming smart-drones are already the subjects of a new arms race that will deliver almost un-killable machine adversaries by 2050. AI separately is in other arms races to make super-smart AI and super-smart soldiers. This is key to the 2005 point of no return. It was around 2005 that we reached the levels of technology where future AI development all the way to superhuman machine consciousness could be done by individuals, mad scientists or rogue states, even if major powers had banned it. Before 2005, there probably wasn’t quite enough knowledge already on the net to do that. In 2018, lots of agencies have already achieved superiority to humans in niche areas, and other niches will succumb one by one until the whole field of human capability is covered. The first machines to behave in ways not fully understood by humans arrived in the early 1990s; in 2018, neural nets already make lots of decisions at least partly obscured to humans.

This AI development trend will take us to superhuman AI, and it will be able to accelerate development of its own descendants to vastly superhuman AI, fully conscious, with emotions, and its own agendas. That will need humans to protect against being wiped out by superhuman AI. The only three ways we could do that are to either redesign the brain biologically to be far smarter, essentially impossible in the time-frame, to design ways to link our brains to machines, so that we have direct access to the same intelligence as the AIs, so a gulf doesn’t appear and we can remain relatively safe, or pray for super-smart aliens to come to our help, not the best prospect.

Therefore we will have no choice but to make direct brain links to super-smart AI. Otherwise we risk extinction. It is that simple. We have some idea how to do that – nanotech devices inside the brain linking to each and every synapse that can relay electrical signals either way, a difficult but not impossible engineering problem. Best guesses for time-frame fall in the 2045-2050 range for a fully working link that not only relays signals between your organic brain and an IT replica, but by doing so essentially makes external IT just another part of your brain. That conveys some of the other technology gifts of electronic immortality, new varieties of humans, smart bacteria (which will be created during the development path to this link) along with human-variant population explosion, especially in cyberspace, with androids as their physical front end, and the inevitable inter-species conflicts over resources and space – trillions of AI and human-like minds in cyberspace that want to do things in the real world cannot be assumed to be willingly confined just to protect the interests of what they will think of as far lesser species.

Super-smart AI or humans with almost total capability to design whatever synthetic biology is needed to achieve any biological feature will create genetic listings for infinite potential offspring, simulate them, give some of them cyberspace lives, assemble actual embryos for some of them and bring designer babies. Already in 2018, you can pay to get a DNA listing, and blend it in any way you want with the listing of anyone else. It’s already possible to make DNA listings for potential humans and sell them on ebay, hence the term ebaybies. That is perfectly legal, still, but I’ve been writing and lecturing about them since 2004. Today they would just be listings, but we’ll one day have the tech to simulate them, choose ones we like and make them real, even some that were sold as celebrity collector items on ebay. It’s not only too late to start regulating this kind of tech, our leaders aren’t even thinking about it yet.

These technologies are all linked intricately, and their foundations are already in place, with much of the building on those foundations under way. We can’t stop any of these things from happening, they will all come in the same basket. Our leaders are becoming aware of the potential and the potential dangers of the AI positive feedback loop, but at least 15 years too late to do much about it. They have been warned repeatedly and loudly but have focused instead on the minor politics of the day that voters are aware of. The fundamental nature of politics is unlikely to change substantially, so even efforts to slow down the pace of development or to limit areas of impact are likely to be always too little too late. At best, we will be able to slow runaway AI development enough to allow direct brain links to protect against extinction scenarios. But we will not be able to stop it now.

Given inevitability, it’s worth questioning whether there is even any point in trying. Why not just enjoy the ride? Well, the brakes might be broken, but if we can steer the bus expertly enough, it could be exciting and we could come out of it smelling of roses. The weak link is certainly the risk of super-smart AI, whether AI v humans or countries using super-smart AI to fight fiercely for world domination. That risk is alleviated by direct brain linkage, and I’d strongly argue necessitates it, but that brings the other technologies. Even if we decide not to develop it, others will, so one way or another, all these techs will arrive, and our future late century will have this full suite of techs, plus many others of course.

We need as a matter of extreme urgency to fix these silly social media squabbles and over-reactions that are pulling society apart. If we have groups hating each other with access to extremely advanced technology, that can only mean trouble. Tolerance is broken, sanctimony rules, the Inquisition is in progress. We have been offered techno-utopia, but current signs are that most people think techno-hell looks more appetizing and it is their free choice.

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.