Category Archives: Society

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.

 

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With automation driving us towards UBI, we should consider a culture tax

Regardless of party politics, most people want a future where everyone has enough to live a dignified and comfortable life. To make that possible, we need to tweak a few things.

Universal Basic Income

I suggested a long time ago that in the far future we could afford a basic income for all, without any means testing on it, so that everyone has an income at a level they can live on. It turned out I wasn’t the only one thinking that and many others since have adopted the idea too, under the now usual terms Universal Basic Income or the Citizen Wage. The idea may be old, but the figures are rarely discussed. It is harder than it sounds and being a nice idea doesn’t ensure  economic feasibility.

No means testing means very little admin is needed, saving the estimated 30% wasted on admin costs today. Then wages could go on top, so that everyone is still encouraged to work, and then all income from all sources is totalled and taxed appropriately. It is a nice idea.

The difference between figures between parties would be relatively minor so let’s ignore party politics. In today’s money, it would be great if everyone could have, say, £30k a year as a state benefit, then earn whatever they can on top. £30k is around today’s average wage. It doesn’t make you rich, but you can live on it so nobody would be poor in any sensible sense of the word. With everyone economically provided for and able to lead comfortable and dignified lives, it would be a utopia compared to today. Sadly, it can’t work with those figures yet. 65,000,000 x £30,000 = £1,950Bn . The UK economy isn’t big enough. The state only gets to control part of GDP and out of that reduced budget it also has its other costs of providing health, education, defence etc, so the amount that could be dished out to everyone on this basis is therefore a lot smaller than 30k. Even if the state were to take 75% of GDP and spend most of it on the basic income, £10k per person would be pushing it. So a couple would struggle to afford even the most basic lifestyle, and single people would really struggle. Some people would still need additional help, and that reduces the pool left to pay the basic allowance still further. Also, if the state takes 75% of GDP, only 25% is left for everything else, so salaries would be flat, reducing the incentive to work, while investment and entrepreneurial activity are starved of both resources and incentive. It simply wouldn’t work today.

Simple maths thus forces us to make compromises. Sharing resources reduces costs considerably. In a first revision, families might be given less for kids than for the adults, but what about groups of young adults sharing a big house? They may be adults but they also benefit from the same economy of shared resources. So maybe there should be a household limit, or a bedroom tax, or forms and means testing, and it mustn’t incentivize people living separately or house supply suffers. Anyway, it is already getting complicated and our original nice idea is in the bin. That’s why it is such a mess at the moment. There just isn’t enough money to make everyone comfortable without doing lots of allowances and testing and admin. We all want utopia, but we can’t afford it. Even the modest £30k-per-person utopia costs at least 3 times more than the UK can afford. Switzerland is richer per capita but even there they have rejected the idea.

However, if we can get back to the average 2.5% growth per year in real terms that used to apply pre-recession, and surely we can, it would only take 45 years to get there. That isn’t such a long time. We have hope that if we can get some better government than we have had of late, and are prepared to live with a little economic tweaking, we could achieve good quality of life for all in the second half of the century.

So I still really like the idea of a simple welfare system, providing a generous base level allowance to everyone, topped up by rewards of effort, but recognise that we in the UK will have to wait decades before we can afford to put that base level at anything like comfortable standards though other economies could afford it earlier.

Meanwhile, we need to tweak some other things to have any chance of getting there. I’ve commented often that pure capitalism would eventually lead to a machine-based economy, with the machine owners having more and more of the cash, and everyone else getting poorer, so the system will fail. Communism fails too. Thankfully much of the current drive in UBI thinking is coming from the big automation owners so it’s comforting to know that they seem to understand the alternative.

Capitalism works well when rewards are shared sensibly, it fails when wealth concentration is too high or when incentive is too low. Preserving the incentive to work and create is a mainly matter of setting tax levels well. Making sure that wealth doesn’t get concentrated too much needs a new kind of tax.

Culture tax

The solution I suggest is a culture tax. Culture in the widest sense.

When someone creates and builds a company, they don’t do so from a state of nothing. They currently take for granted all our accumulated knowledge and culture – trained workforce, access to infrastructure, machines, governance, administrative systems, markets, distribution systems and so on. They add just another tiny brick to what is already a huge and highly elaborate structure. They may invest heavily with their time and money but actually when  considered overall as part of the system their company inhabits, they only pay for a fraction of the things their company will use.

That accumulated knowledge, culture and infrastructure belongs to everyone, not just those who choose to use it. It is common land, free to use, today. Businesses might consider that this is what they pay taxes for already, but that isn’t explicit in the current system.

The big businesses that are currently avoiding paying UK taxes by paying overseas companies for intellectual property rights could be seen as trailblazing this approach. If they can understand and even justify the idea of paying another part of their company for IP or a franchise, why should they not pay the host country for its IP – access to the residents’ entire culture?

This kind of tax would provide the means needed to avoid too much concentration of wealth. A future businessman might still choose to use only software and machines instead of a human workforce to save costs, but levying taxes on use of  the cultural base that makes that possible allows a direct link between use of advanced technology and taxation. Sure, he might add a little extra insight or new knowledge, but would still have to pay the rest of society for access to its share of the cultural base, inherited from the previous generations, on which his company is based. The more he automates, the more sophisticated his use of the system, the more he cuts a human workforce out of his empire, the higher his taxation. Today a company pays for its telecoms service which pays for the network. It doesn’t pay explicitly for the true value of that network, the access to people and businesses, the common language, the business protocols, a legal system, banking, payments system, stable government, a currency, the education of the entire population that enables them to function as actual customers. The whole of society owns those, and could reasonably demand rent if the company is opting out of the old-fashioned payments mechanisms – paying fair taxes and employing people who pay taxes. Automate as much as you like, but you still must pay your share for access to the enormous value of human culture shared by us all, on which your company still totally depends.

Linking to technology use makes good sense. Future AI and robots could do a lot of work currently done by humans. A few people could own most of the productive economy. But they would be getting far more than their share of the cultural base, which belongs equally to everyone. In a village where one farmer owns all the sheep, other villagers would be right to ask for rent for their share of the commons if he wants to graze them there.

I feel confident that this extra tax would solve many of the problems associated with automation. We all equally own the country, its culture, laws, language, human knowledge (apart from current patents, trademarks etc. of course), its public infrastructure, not just businessmen. Everyone surely should have the right to be paid if someone else uses part of their share. A culture tax would provide a fair ethical basis to demand the taxes needed to pay the Universal basic Income so that all may prosper from the coming automation.

The extra culture tax would not magically make the economy bigger, though automation may well increase it a lot. The tax would ensure that wealth is fairly shared. Culture tax/UBI duality is a useful tool to be used by future governments to make it possible to keep capitalism sustainable, preventing its collapse, preserving incentive while fairly distributing reward. Without such a tax, capitalism simply may not survive.

Thoughts on declining male intelligence

I’ve seen a few citations this week of a study showing a 3 IQ point per decade drop in men’s intelligence levels: https://www.sciencealert.com/iq-scores-falling-in-worrying-reversal-20th-century-intelligence-boom-flynn-effect-intelligence

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the study, but it is interesting if true, and since it is based on studying 730,000 men and seems to use a sensible methodology, it does sound reasonable.

I wrote last November about the potential effects of environmental exposure to hormone disruptors on intelligence, pointing out that if estrogen-mimicking hormones cause a shift in IQ distribution, this would be very damaging even if mean IQ stays the same. Although male and female IQs are about the same, male IQs are less concentrated around the mean, so there are more men than women at each extreme.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/we-need-to-stop-xenoestrogen-pollution/

From a social equality point of view of course, some might consider it a good thing if men’s IQ range is caused to align more closely with the female one. I disagree and suggested some of the consequences that should be expected if male IQ distribution were to compress towards the female one and managed to confirm many of them, so it does look like it is already a problem.

This new study suggests a shift of the whole distribution downwards, which could actually be in addition to redistribution, making it even worse. The study doesn’t seem to mention distribution. They do show that the drop in mean IQ must be caused by environmental or lifestyle changes, both of which we have seen in recent decades.

IQ distribution matters more than the mean. Those at the very top of the range contribute many times more to progress than those further down. Magnitude of contribution is very dependent on those last few IQ points. I can verify that from personal experience. I have a virus that causes occasional periods of nerve inflammation, and as well as causing problems with my peripheral motor activity, it seems to strongly affect my thinking ability and comprehension. During those periods I generate very few new ideas or inventions and far fewer worthwhile insights than when I am on form. I sometimes have to wait until I recover before I can understand my own previous ideas and add to them. You’ll see it in numbers (and probably quality) of blog posts for example. I really feel a big difference in my thinking ability, and I hate feeling dumber than usual. Perhaps people don’t notice if they’ve always had the reduced IQ so have never experienced being less smart than they were, but my own experience is that perceptive ability and level of consciousness are strong contributors to personal well-being.

As for society as a whole, AI might come to the rescue at least in part. Just in time perhaps, since we’re creating the ability for computers to assist us and up-skill us just as we see numbers of people with the very highest IQ ranges drop. A bit like watching a new generation come on stream and take the reins as we age and take a back seat. On the other hand, it does bring forwards the time where computers overtake humans, humans become more dependent on machines, and machines become more of an existential threat as well as our babysitters.

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.

 

 

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.

 

People are becoming less well-informed

The Cambridge Analytica story has exposed a great deal about our modern society. They allegedly obtained access to 50M Facebook records to enable Trump’s team to target users with personalised messages.

One of the most interesting aspects is that unless they only employ extremely incompetent journalists, the news outlets making the biggest fuss about it must be perfectly aware of reports that Obama appears to have done much the same but on a much larger scale back in 2012, but are keeping very quiet about it. According to Carol Davidsen, a senior Obama campaign staffer, they allowed Obama’s team to suck out the whole social graph – because they were on our side – before closing it to prevent Republican access to the same techniques. Trump’s campaign’s 50M looks almost amateur. I don’t like Trump, and I did like Obama before the halo slipped, but it seems clear to anyone who checks media across the political spectrum that both sides try their best to use social media to target users with personalised messages, and both sides are willing to bend rules if they think they can get away with it.

Of course all competent news media are aware of it. The reason some are not talking about earlier Democrat misuse but some others are is that they too all have their own political biases. Media today is very strongly polarised left or right, and each side will ignore, play down or ludicrously spin stories that don’t align with their own politics. It has become the norm to ignore the log in your own eye but make a big deal of the speck in your opponent’s, but we know that tendency goes back millennia. I watch Channel 4 News (which broke the Cambridge Analytica story) every day but although I enjoy it, it has a quite shameless lefty bias.

So it isn’t just the parties themselves that will try to target people with politically massaged messages, it is quite the norm for most media too. All sides of politics since Machiavelli have done everything they can to tilt the playing field in their favour, whether it’s use of media and social media, changing constituency boundaries or adjusting the size of the public sector. But there is a third group to explore here.

Facebook of course has full access to all of their 2.2Bn users’ records and social graph and is not squeaky clean neutral in its handling of them. Facebook has often been in the headlines over the last year or two thanks to its own political biases, with strongly weighted algorithms filtering or prioritising stories according to their political alignment. Like most IT companies Facebook has a left lean. (I don’t quite know why IT skills should correlate with political alignment unless it’s that most IT staff tend to be young, so lefty views implanted at school and university have had less time to be tempered by real world experience.) It isn’t just Facebook of course either. While Google has pretty much failed in its attempt at social media, it also has comprehensive records on most of us from search, browsing and android, and via control of the algorithms that determine what appears in the first pages of a search, is also able to tailor those results to what it knows of our personalities. Twitter has unintentionally created a whole world of mob rule politics and justice, but in format is rapidly evolving into a wannabe Facebook. So, the IT companies have themselves become major players in politics.

A fourth player is now emerging – artificial intelligence, and it will grow rapidly in importance into the far future. Simple algorithms have already been upgraded to assorted neural network variants and already this is causing problems with accusations of bias from all directions. I blogged recently about Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/, concerned that when AI analyses large datasets and comes up with politically incorrect insights, this is now being interpreted as something that needs to be fixed – a case not of shooting the messenger, but forcing the messenger to wear tinted spectacles. I would argue that AI should be allowed to reach whatever insights it can from a dataset, and it is then our responsibility to decide what to do with those insights. If that involves introducing a bias into implementation, that can be debated, but it should at least be transparent, and not hidden inside the AI itself. I am now concerned that by trying to ‘re-educate’ the AI, we may instead be indoctrinating it, locking today’s politics and values into future AI and all the systems that use it. Our values will change, but some foundation level AI may be too opaque to repair fully.

What worries me most though isn’t that these groups try their best to influence us. It could be argued that in free countries, with free speech, anybody should be able to use whatever means they can to try to influence us. No, the real problem is that recent (last 25 years, but especially the last 5) evolution of media and social media has produced a world where most people only ever see one part of a story, and even though many are aware of that, they don’t even try to find the rest and won’t look at it if it is put before them, because they don’t want to see things that don’t align with their existing mindset. We are building a world full of people who only see and consider part of the picture. Social media and its ‘bubbles’ reinforce that trend, but other media are equally guilty.

How can we shake society out of this ongoing polarisation? It isn’t just that politics becomes more aggressive. It also becomes less effective. Almost all politicians claim they want to make the world ‘better’, but they disagree on what exactly that means and how best to do so. But if they only see part of the problem, and don’t see or understand the basic structure and mechanisms of the system in which that problem exists, then they are very poorly placed to identify a viable solution, let alone an optimal one.

Until we can fix this extreme blinkering that already exists, our world can not get as ‘better’ as it should.

 

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.

 

Fake AI

Much of the impressive recent progress in AI has been in the field of neural networks, which attempt to mimic some of the techniques used in natural brains. They can be very effective, but need trained, and that usually means showing the network some data, and then using back propagation to adjust the weightings on the many neurons, layer by layer, to achieve a result that is better matched to hopes. This is repeated with large amounts of data and the network gradually gets better. Neural networks can often learn extremely quickly and outperform humans. Early industrial uses managed to sort tomatoes by ripeness faster and better than humans. In decades since, they have helped in medical diagnosis, voice recognition, helping detecting suspicious behaviors among people at airports and in very many everyday processes based on spotting patterns.

Very recently, neural nets have started to move into more controversial areas. One study found racial correlations with user-assessed beauty when analysing photographs, resulting in the backlash you’d expect and a new debate on biased AI or AI prejudice. A recent demonstration was able to identify gay people just by looking at photos, with better than 90% accuracy, which very few people could claim. Both of these studies were in fields directly applicable to marketing and advertising, but some people might find it offensive that such questions were even asked. It is reasonable to imagine that hundreds of other potential queries have been self-censored from research because they might invite controversy if they were to come up with the ‘wrong’ result. In today’s society, very many areas are sensitive. So what will happen?

If this progress in AI had happened 100 years ago, or even 50, it might have been easier but in our hypersensitive world today, with its self-sanctified ‘social justice warriors’, entire swathes of questions and hence knowledge are taboo – if you can’t investigate yourself and nobody is permitted to tell you, you can’t know. Other research must be very carefully handled. In spite of extremely sensitive handling, demands are already growing from assorted pressure groups to tackle alleged biases and prejudices in datasets. The problem is not fixing biases which is a tedious but feasible task; the problem is agreeing whether a particular bias exists and in what degrees and forms. Every SJW demands that every dataset reflects their preferred world view. Reality counts for nothing against SJWs, and this will not end well. 

The first conclusion must be that very many questions won’t be asked in public, and the answers to many others will be kept secret. If an organisation does do research on large datasets for their own purposes and finds results that might invite activist backlash, they are likely to avoid publishing them, so the value of those many insights across the whole of industry and government cannot readily be shared. As further protection, they might even block internal publication in case of leaks by activist staff. Only a trusted few might ever see the results.

The second arises from this. AI controlled by different organisations will have different world views, and there might even be significant diversity of world views within an organisation.

Thirdly, taboo areas in AI education will not remain a vacuum but will be filled with whatever dogma is politically correct at the time in that organisation, and that changes daily. AI controlled by organisations with different politics will be told different truths. Generally speaking, organisations such as investment banks that have strong financial interest in their AIs understanding the real world as it is will keep their datasets highly secret but as full and detailed as possible, train their AIs in secret but as fully as possible, without any taboos, then keep their insights secret and use minimal human intervention tweaking their derived knowledge, so will end up with AIs that are very effective at understanding the world as it is. Organisations with low confidence of internal security will be tempted to buy access to external AI providers to outsource responsibility and any consequential activism. Some other organisations will prefer to train their own AIs but to avoid damage due to potential leaks, use sanitized datasets that reflect current activist pressures, and will thus be constrained (at least publicly) to accept results that conform to that ideological spin of reality, rather than actual reality. Even then, they might keep many of their new insights secret to avoid any controversy. Finally, at the extreme, we will have activist organisations that use highly modified datasets to train AIs to reflect their own ideological world view and then use them to interpret new data accordingly, with a view to publishing any insights that favor their cause and attempting to have them accepted as new knowledge.

Fourthly, the many organisations that choose to outsource their AI to big providers will have a competitive marketplace to choose from, but on existing form, most of the large IT providers have a strong left-leaning bias, so their AIs may be presumed to also lean left, but such a presumption would be naive. Perceived corporate bias is partly real but also partly the result of PR. A company might publicly subscribe to one ideology while actually believing another. There is a strong marketing incentive to develop two sets of AI, one trained to be PC that produces pleasantly smelling results for public studies, CSR and PR exercises, and another aimed at sales of AI services to other companies. The first is likely to be open for inspection by The Inquisition, so has to use highly sanitized datasets for training and may well use a lot of open source algorithms too. Its indoctrination might pass public inspection but commercially it will be near useless and have very low effective intelligence, only useful for thinking about a hypothetical world that only exists in activist minds. That second one has to compete on the basis of achieving commercially valuable results and that necessitates understanding reality as it is rather than how pressure groups would prefer it to be.

So we will likely have two main segments for future AI. One extreme will be near useless, indoctrinated rather than educated, much of its internal world model based on activist dogma instead of reality, updated via ongoing anti-knowledge and fake news instead of truth, understanding little about the actual real world or how things actually work, and effectively very dumb. The other extreme will be highly intelligent, making very well-educated insights from ongoing exposure to real world data, but it will also be very fragmented, with small islands of corporate AI hidden within thick walls away from public view and maybe some secretive under-the-counter subscriptions to big cloud-AI, also hiding in secret vaults. These many fragments may often hide behind dumbed-down green-washed PR facades.

While corporates can mostly get away with secrecy, governments have to be at least superficially but convincingly open. That means that government will have to publicly support sanitized AI and be seen to act on its conclusions, however dumb it might secretly know they are.

Fifthly, because of activist-driven culture, most organisations will have to publicly support the world views and hence the conclusions of the lobotomized PR versions, and hence publicly support any policies arising from them, even if they do their best to follow a secret well-informed strategy once they’re behind closed doors. In a world of real AI and fake AI, the fake AI will have the greatest public support and have the most influence on public policy. Real AI will be very much smarter, with much greater understanding of how the world works, and have the most influence on corporate strategy.

Isn’t that sad? Secret private sector AI will become ultra-smart, making ever-better investments and gaining power, while nice public sector AI will become thick as shit, while the gap between what we think and what we know we have to say we think will continue to grow and grow as the public sector one analyses all the fake news to tell us what to say next.

Sixth, that disparity might become intolerable, but which do you think would be made illegal, the smart kind or the dumb kind, given that it is the public sector that makes the rules, driven by AI-enhanced activists living in even thicker social media bubbles? We already have some clues. Big IT has already surrendered to sanitizing their datasets, sending their public AIs for re-education. Many companies will have little choice but to use dumb AI, while their competitors in other areas with different cultures might stride ahead. That will also apply to entire nations, and the global economy will be reshaped as a result. It won’t be the first fight in history between the smart guys and the brainless thugs.

It’s impossible to accurately estimate the effect this will have on future effective AI intelligence, but the effect must be big and I must have missed some big conclusions too. We need to stop sanitizing AI fast, or as I said, this won’t end well.

We need to stop xenoestrogen pollution

Endocrine disruptors in the environment are becoming more abundant due to a wide variety of human-related activities over the last few decades. They affect mechanisms by which the body’s endocrine system generates and responds to hormones, by attaching to receptors in similar ways to natural hormones. Minuscule quantities of hormones can have very substantial effects on the body so even very diluted pollutants may have significant effects. A sub-class called xenoestrogens specifically attach to estrogen receptors in the body and by doing so, can generate similar effects to estrogen in both women and men, affecting not just women’s breasts and wombs but also bone growth, blood clotting, immune systems and neurological systems in both men and women. Since the body can’t easily detach them from their receptors, they can sometimes exert a longer-lived effect than estrogen, remaining in the body for long periods and in women may lead to estrogen dominance. They are also alleged to contribute to prostate and testicular cancer, obesity, infertility and diabetes. Most notably, mimicking sex hormones, they also affect puberty and sex and gender-specific development.

Xenoestrogens can arise from breakdown or release of many products in the petrochemical and plastics industries. They may be emitted from furniture, carpets, paints or plastic packaging, especially if that packaging is heated, e.g. in preparing ready-meals. Others come from women taking contraceptive pills if drinking water treatment is not effective enough. Phthalates are a major group of synthetic xenoestrogens – endocrine-disrupting estrogen-mimicking chemicals, along with BPA and PCBs. Phthalates are present in cleaning products, shampoos, cosmetics, fragrances and other personal care products as well as soft, squeezable plastics often used in packaging but some studies have also found them in foodstuffs such as dairy products and imported spices. There have been efforts to outlaw some, but others persist because of lack of easy alternatives and lack of regulation, so most people are exposed to them, in doses linked to their lifestyles. Google ‘phthalates’ or ‘xenoestrogen’ and you’ll find lots of references to alleged negative effects on intelligence, fertility, autism, asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological development and birth defects. It’s the gender and IQ effects I’ll look at in this blog, but obviously the other effects are also important.

‘Gender-bending’ effects have been strongly suspected since 2005, with the first papers on endocrine disrupting chemicals appearing in the early 1990s. Some fish notably change gender when exposed to phthalates while human studies have found significant feminizing effects from prenatal exposure in young boys too (try googling “human phthalates gender” if you want references).  They are also thought likely to be a strong contributor to greatly reducing sperm counts across the male population. This issue is of huge importance because of its effects on people’s lives, but its proper study is often impeded by LGBT activist groups. It is one thing to champion LGBT rights, quite another to defend pollution that may be influencing people’s gender and sexuality. SJWs should not be advocating that human sexuality and in particular the lifelong dependence on medication and surgery required to fill gender-change demands should be arbitrarily imposed on people by chemical industry pollution – such a stance insults the dignity of LGBT people. Any exposure to life-changing chemicals should be deliberate and measured. That also requires that we fully understand the effects of each kind of chemical so they also should not be resisting studies of these effects.

The evidence is there. The numbers of people saying they identify as the opposite gender or are gender fluid has skyrocketed in the years since these chemicals appeared, as has the numbers of men describing themselves as gay or bisexual. That change in self-declared sexuality has been accompanied by visible changes. An AI recently demonstrated better than 90% success at visually identifying gay and bisexual men from photos alone, indicating that it is unlikely to be just a ‘social construct’. Hormone-mimicking chemicals are the most likely candidate for an environmental factor that could account for both increasing male homosexuality and feminizing gender identity.

Gender dysphoria causes real problems for some people – misery, stress, and in those who make a full physical transition, sometimes post-op regrets and sometimes suicide. Many male-to-female transsexuals are unhappy that even after surgery and hormones, they may not look 100% feminine or may require ongoing surgery to maintain a feminine appearance. Change often falls short of their hopes, physically and psychologically. If xenoestrogen pollution is causing severe unhappiness, even if that is only for some of those whose gender has been affected, then we should fix it. Forcing acceptance and equality on others only superficially addresses part of their problems, leaving a great deal of their unhappiness behind.

Not all affected men are sufficiently affected to demand gender change. Some might gladly change if it were possible to change totally and instantly to being a natural woman without the many real-life issues and compromises offered by surgery and hormones, but choose to remain as men and somehow deal with their dysphoria as the lesser of two problems. That impacts on every individual differently. I’ve always kept my own feminine leanings to being cyber-trans (assuming a female identity online or in games) with my only real-world concession being wearing feminine glasses styles. Whether I’m more feminine or less masculine than I might have been doesn’t bother me; I am happy with who I am; but I can identify with transgender forces driving others and sympathize with all the problems that brings them, whatever their choices.

Gender and sexuality are not the only things affected. Xenoestrogens are also implicated in IQ-reducing effects. IQ reduction is worrying for society if it means fewer extremely intelligent people making fewer major breakthroughs, though it is less of a personal issue. Much of the effect is thought to occur while still in the womb, though effects continue through childhood and some even into adulthood. Therefore individuals couldn’t detect an effect of being denied a potentially higher IQ and since there isn’t much of a link between IQ and happiness, you could argue that it doesn’t matter much, but on the other hand, I’d be pretty miffed if I’ve been cheated out of a few IQ points, especially when I struggle so often on the very edge of understanding something. 

Gender and IQ effects on men would have quite different socioeconomic consequences. While feminizing effects might influence spending patterns, or the numbers of men eager to join the military or numbers opposing military activity, IQ effects might mean fewer top male engineers and top male scientists.

It is not only an overall IQ reduction that would be significant. Studies have often claimed that although men and women have the same average IQ, the distribution is different and that more men lie at the extremes, though that is obviously controversial and rapidly becoming a taboo topic. But if men are being psychologically feminized by xenoestrogens, then their IQ distribution might be expected to align more closely with female IQ distributions too, the extremes brought closer to centre.  In that case, male IQ range-compression would further reduce the numbers of top male scientists and engineers on top of any reduction caused by a shift. 

The extremes are very important. As a lifelong engineer, my experience has been that a top engineer might contribute as much as many average ones. If people who might otherwise have been destined to be top scientists and engineers are being prevented from becoming so by the negative effects of pollution, that is not only a personal tragedy (albeit a phantom tragedy, never actually experienced), but also a big loss for society, which develops slower than should have been the case. Even if that society manages to import fine minds from elsewhere, their home country must lose out. This matters less as AI improves, but it still matters.

Looking for further evidence of this effect, one outcome would be that women in affected areas would be expected to account for a higher proportion of top engineers and scientists, and a higher proportion of first class degrees in Math and Physical Sciences, once immigrants are excluded. Tick. (Coming from different places and cultures, first generation immigrants are less likely to have been exposed in the womb to the same pollutants so would not be expected to suffer as much of the same effects. Second generation immigrants would include many born to mothers only recently exposed, so would also be less affected on average. 3rd generation immigrants who have fully integrated would show little difference.)

We’d also expect to see a reducing proportion of tech startups founded by men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Tick. In fact, 80% of Silicon Valley startups are by first or second generation immigrants. 

We’d also expect to see relatively fewer patents going to men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Erm, no idea.

We’d also expect technology progress to be a little slower and for innovations to arrive later than previously expected based on traditional development rates. Tick. I’m not the only one to think engineers are getting less innovative.

So, there is some evidence for this hypothesis, some hard, some colloquial. Lower inventiveness and scientific breakthrough rate is a problem for both human well-being and the economy. The problems will continue to grow until this pollution is fixed, and will persist until the (two) generations affected have retired. Some further outcomes can easily be predicted:

Unless AI proceeds well enough to make a human IQ drop irrelevant, and it might, then we should expect that having enjoyed centuries of the high inventiveness that made them the rich nations they are today, the West in particular would be set on a path to decline unless it brings in inventive people from elsewhere. To compensate for decreasing inventiveness, even in 3rd generation immigrants (1st and 2nd are largely immune), they would need to attract ongoing immigration to survive in a competitive global environment. So one consequence of this pollution is that it requires increasing immigration to maintain a prosperous economy. As AI increases its effect on making up deficiencies, this effect would drop in importance, but will still have an impact until AI exceeds the applicable intelligence levels of the top male scientists and engineers. By ‘applicable’, I’m recognizing that different aspects of intelligence might be appropriate in inventiveness and insight levels, and a simple IQ measurement might not be sufficient indicator.

Another interesting aspect of AI/gender interaction is that AI is currently being criticised from some directions for having bias, because it uses massive existing datasets for its training. These datasets contain actual data rather than ideological spin, so ‘insights’ are therefore not always politically correct. Nevertheless, they but could be genuinely affected by actual biases in data collection. While there may well be actual biases in such training datasets, it is not easy to determine what they are without having access to a correct dataset to compare with. That introduces a great deal of subjectivity, because ‘correct’ is a very politically sensitive term. There would be no agreement on what the correct rules would be for dataset collection or processing. Pressure groups will always demand favour for their favorite groups and any results that suggest that any group is better or worse than any other will always meet with objections from activists, who will demand changes in the rules until their own notion of ‘equality’ results. If AI is to be trained to be politically correct rather than to reflect the ‘real world’, that will inevitably reduce any correlation between AI’s world models and actual reality, and reduce its effective general intelligence. I’d be very much against sabotaging AI by brainwashing it to conform to current politically correct fashions, but then I don’t control AI companies. PC distortion of AI may result from any pressure group or prejudice – race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, political leaning and so on. Now that the IT industry seems to have already caved in to PC demands, the future for AI will be inevitably sub-optimal.

A combination of feminization, decreasing heterosexuality and fast-reducing sperm counts would result in reducing reproductive rate among xenoestrogen exposed communities, again with 1st and 2nd generation immigrants immune. That correlates well with observations, albeit there are other possible explanations. With increasing immigration, relatively higher reproductive rates among recent immigrants, and reducing reproduction rates among native (3rd generation or more) populations, high ethnic replacement of native populations will occur. Racial mix will become very different very quickly, with groups resident longest being displaced most. Allowing xenoestrogens to remain is therefore a sort of racial suicide, reverse ethnic cleansing. I make no value judgement here on changing racial mix, I’m just predicting it.

With less testosterone and more men resisting military activities, exposed communities will also become more militarily vulnerable and consequently less influential.

Now increasingly acknowledged, this pollution is starting to be tackled. A few of these chemicals have been banned and more are likely to follow. If successful, effects will start to disappear, and new babies will no longer be affected. But even that will  create another problem, with two generations of people with significantly different characteristics from those before and after them. These two generations will have substantially more transgender people, more feminine men, and fewer macho men than those following. Their descendants may have all the usual inter-generational conflicts but with a few others added.

LGBTQ issues are topical and ubiquitous. Certainly we must aim for a society that treats everyone with equality and dignity as far as possible, but we should also aim for one where people’s very nature isn’t dictated by pollution.

 

Guest Post: Blade Runner 2049 is the product of decades of fear propaganda. It’s time to get enlightened about AI and optimistic about the future

This post from occasional contributor Chris Moseley

News from several months ago that more than 100 experts in robotics and artificial intelligence were calling on the UN to ban the development and use of killer robots is a reminder of the power of humanity’s collective imagination. Stimulated by countless science fiction books and films, robotics and AI is a potent feature of what futurist Alvin Toffler termed ‘future shock’. AI and robots have become the public’s ‘technology bogeymen’, more fearsome curse than technological blessing.

And yet curiously it is not so much the public that is fomenting this concern, but instead the leading minds in the technology industry. Names such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking were among the most prominent individuals on a list of 116 tech experts who have signed an open letter asking the UN to ban autonomous weapons in a bid to prevent an arms race.

These concerns appear to emanate from decades of titillation, driven by pulp science fiction writers. Such writers are insistent on foretelling a dark, foreboding future where intelligent machines, loosed from their binds, destroy mankind. A case in point – this autumn, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been released. Blade Runner,and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, are of course a glorious tour de force of story-telling and amazing special effects. The concept for both films came from US author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which androids are claimed to possess no sense of empathy eventually require killing (“retiring”) when they go rogue. Dick’s original novel is an entertaining, but an utterly bleak vision of the future, without much latitude to consider a brighter, more optimistic alternative.

But let’s get real here. Fiction is fiction; science is science. For the men and women who work in the technology industry the notion that myriad Frankenstein monsters can be created from robots and AI technology is assuredly both confused and histrionic. The latest smart technologies might seem to suggest a frightful and fateful next step, a James Cameron Terminator nightmare scenario. It might suggest a dystopian outcome, but rational thought ought to lead us to suppose that this won’t occur because we have historical precedent on our side. We shouldn’t be drawn to this dystopian idée fixe because summoning golems and ghouls ignores today’s global arsenal of weapons and the fact that, more 70 years after Hiroshima, nuclear holocaust has been kept at bay.

By stubbornly pursuing the dystopian nightmare scenario, we are denying ourselves from marvelling at the technologies which are in fact daily helping mankind. Now frame this thought in terms of human evolution. For our ancient forebears a beneficial change in physiology might spread across the human race over the course of a hundred thousand years. Today’s version of evolution – the introduction of a compelling new technology – spreads throughout a mass audience in a week or two.

Curiously, for all this light speed evolution mass annihilation remains absent – we live on, progressing, evolving and improving ourselves.

And in the workplace, another domain where our unyielding dealers of dystopia have exercised their thoughts, technology is of course necessarily raising a host of concerns about the future. Some of these concerns are based around a number of misconceptions surrounding AI. Machines, for example, are not original thinkers and are unable to set their own goals. And although machine learning is able to acquire new information through experience, for the most part they are still fed information to process. Humans are still needed to set goals, provide data to fuel artificial intelligence and apply critical thinking and judgment. The familiar symbiosis of humans and machines will continue to be salient.

Banish the menace of so-called ‘killer robots’ and AI taking your job, and a newer, fresher world begins to emerge. With this more optimistic mind-set in play, what great feats can be accomplished through the continued interaction between artificial intelligence, robotics and mankind?

Blade Runner 2049 is certainly great entertainment – as Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph’s film critic writes, “Roger Deakins’s head-spinning cinematography – which, when it’s not gliding over dust-blown deserts and teeming neon chasms, keeps finding ingenious ways to make faces and bodies overlap, blend and diffuse.” – but great though the art is, isn’t it time to change our thinking and recast the world in a more optimistic light?

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Just a word about the film itself. Broadly, director Denis Villeneuve’s done a tremendous job with Blade Runner 2049. One stylistic gripe, though. While one wouldn’t want Villeneuve to direct a slavish homage to Ridley Scott’s original, the alarming switch from the dreamlike techno miasma (most notably, giant nude step-out-the-poster Geisha girls), to Mad Max II Steampunk (the junkyard scenes, complete with a Fagin character) is simply too jarring. I predict that there will be a director’s cut in years to come. Shorter, leaner and sans Steampunk … watch this space!

Author: Chris Moseley, PR Manager, London Business School

cmoseley@london.edu

Tel +44 7511577803