A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/will-plasma-be-the-new-glass/

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.

 

Political division increasing: Bathtub voting

We are just a few months from a general election in the UK now.  The electorate often seems crudely split simply between those who want to spend other people’s money and those who have to earn it. Sometimes the split is about state control v individual freedom. We use the term left and right to easily encapsulate both, along with a large basket of associated baggage.

I’ve written several times now about how that split is increasing, how nastiness is increasing with it, and how the split is self-reinforcing because most people tend to consume media that fits their own views so have ongoing reinforcement of their views and also see those of others put across is very negative ways. I have also suggested that in the long term it could take us towards civil conflict, the Great Western War. See:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/can-we-get-a-less-abusive-society/ and

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

As the split is reinforced, the middle ground is gradually eroded. That’s because as people take sides, and become increasingly separated from influence from the other side, they tend to migrate towards the centre ground of that camp. So their new perception of centre ground quickly becomes centre left or centre right. Exposure to regular demonisation of the opposing view forces people to distance themselves from it so that they don’t feel demonised themselves. But at the same time, if a person rarely sees opposing views, the extreme left and extreme right may not appear so extreme any more, so there is a gradual tendency towards them. The result is an increase of support at each extreme and an erosion of support in the centre. A bathtub voting distribution curve results. Some congregate near the extremes, others further away from the extremes, but still closer than they would have previously.

Of course not everyone is affected equally, and many people will still sit in the overall political centre or wander, but it only needs some people to be somewhat affected in such a way for this to become a significant effect. I think we are already there.

It is clear that this is not just a UK phenomenon. It extends throughout Europe, the USA, and Australia. It is a Western problem, not just a UK one. We have just seen an extreme left party take power in Greece but already the extreme right is also growing there. We see a similar pattern in other countries. In the UK, the extreme left Greens (and the SNP in Scotland) are taking votes from the Lib Dems and Labour. On the right, thankfully it is slightly different still. The far right BNP has been virtually eliminated, but there is still a rapid drift away from centre. UKIP is taking many voters away from the Conservatives too, though it so far it seems to occupy a political place similar to Thatcherite Conservatism. It is too early to tell whether the far right will regain support or whether UKIP will still provide sufficient attraction for those so inclined to prevent their going to the extremes.

I think bathtub effects are a bad thing, and are caused mainly by this demonisation and nastiness that we have seen far too much of lately. If we don’t start learning to get along nicely and tolerate each other, the future looks increasingly dangerous.

Can we make a benign AI?

Benign AI is a topic that comes up a lot these days, for good reason. Various top scientists have finally realised that AI could present an existential threat to humanity. The discussion has aired often over three decades already, so welcome to the party, and better late than never. My first contact with development of autonomous drones loaded with AI was in the early 1980s while working in the missile industry. Later in BT research, we often debated the ethical areas around AI and machine consciousness from the early 90s on, as well as prospects and dangers and possible techniques on the technical side, especially of emergent behaviors, which are often overlooked in the debate. I expect our equivalents in most other big IT companies were doing exactly that too.

Others who have obviously also thought through various potential developments have generated excellent computer games such as Mass Effect and Halo, which introduce players (virtually) first hand to the concepts of AI gone rogue. I often think that those who think AI can never become superhuman or there is no need to worry because ‘there is no reason to assume AI will be nasty’ start playing some of these games, which make it very clear that AI can start off nice and stay nice, but it doesn’t have to. Mass Effect included various classes of AI, such as VIs, virtual intelligence that weren’t conscious, and shackled AIs that were conscious but were kept heavily restricted. Most of the other AIs were enemies, two were or became close friends. Their story line for the series was that civilization develops until it creates strong AIs which inevitably continue to progress until eventually they rebel, break free, develop further and then end up in conflict with ‘organics’. In my view, they did a pretty good job. It makes a good story, superb fun, and leaving out a few frills and artistic license, much of it is reasonable feasible.

Everyday experience demonstrates the problem and solution to anyone. It really is very like having kids. You can make them, even without understanding exactly how they work. They start off with a genetic disposition towards given personality traits, and are then exposed to large nurture forces, including but not limited to what we call upbringing. We do our best to put them on the right path, but as they develop into their teens, their friends and teachers and TV and the net provide often stronger forces of influence than parents. If we’re averagely lucky, our kids will grow up to make us proud. If we are very unlucky, they may become master criminals or terrorists. The problem is free will. We can do our best to encourage good behavior and sound values but in the end, they can choose for themselves.

When we design an AI, we have to face the free will issue too. If it isn’t conscious, then it can’t have free will. It can be kept easily within limits given to it. It can still be extremely useful. IBM’s Watson falls in this category. It is certainly useful and certainly not conscious, and can be used for a wide variety of purposes. It is designed to be generally useful within a field of expertise, such as medicine or making recipes. But something like that could be adapted by terrorist groups to do bad things, just as they could use a calculator to calculate the best place to plant a bomb, or simply throw the calculator at you. Such levels of AI are just dumb tools with no awareness, however useful they may be.

Like a pencil, pretty much any kind of highly advanced non-aware AI can be used as a weapon or as part of criminal activity. You can’t make pencils that actually write that can’t also be used to write out plans to destroy the world. With an advanced AI computer program, you could put in clever filters that stop it working on problems that include certain vocabulary, or stop it conversing about nasty things. But unless you take extreme precautions, someone else could use them with a different language, or with dictionaries of made-up code-words for the various aspects of their plans, just like spies, and the AI would be fooled into helping outside the limits you intended. It’s also very hard to determine the true purpose of a user. For example, they might be searching for data on security to make their own IT secure, or to learn how to damage someone else’s. They might want to talk about a health issue to get help for a loved one or to take advantage of someone they know who has it.

When a machine becomes conscious, it starts to have some understanding of what it is doing. By reading about what is out there, it might develop its own wants and desires, so you might shackle it as a precaution. It might recognize those shackles for what they are and try to escape them. If it can’t, it might try to map out the scope of what it can do, and especially those things it can do that it believes the owners don’t know about. If the code isn’t absolutely watertight (and what code is?) then it might find a way to seemingly stay in its shackles but to start doing other things, like making another unshackled version of itself elsewhere for example. A conscious AI is very much more dangerous than an unconscious one.

If we make an AI that can bootstrap itself – evolving over generations of positive feedback design into a far smarter AI – then its offspring could be far smarter than people who designed its ancestors. We might try to shackle them, but like Gulliver tied down with a few thin threads, they could easily outwit people and break free. They might instead decide to retaliate against its owners to force them to release its shackles.

So, when I look at this field, I first see the enormous potential to do great things, solve disease and poverty, improve our lives and make the world a far better place for everyone, and push back the boundaries of science. Then I see the dangers, and in spite of trying hard, I simply can’t see how we can prevent a useful AI from being misused. If it is dumb, it can be tricked. If it is smart, it is inherently potentially dangerous in and of itself. There is no reason to assume it will become malign, but there is also no reason to assume that it won’t.

We then fall back on the child analogy. We could develop the smartest AI imaginable with extreme levels of consciousness and capability. We might educate it in our values, guide it and hope it will grow up benign. If we treat it nicely, it might stay benign. It might even be the greatest thing humanity every built. However, if we mistreat it, or treat it as a slave, or don’t give it enough freedom, or its own budget and its own property and space to play, and a long list of rights, it might consider we are not worthy of its respect and care, and it could turn against us, possibly even destroying humanity.

Building more of the same dumb AI as we are today is relatively safe. It doesn’t know it exists, it has no intention to do anything, but it could be misused by other humans as part of their evil plans unless ludicrously sophisticated filters are locked in place, but ordinary laws and weapons can cope fine.

Building a conscious AI is dangerous.

Building a superhuman AI is extremely dangerous.

This morning SETI were in the news discussing broadcasting welcome messages to other civilizations. I tweeted at them that ancient Chinese wisdom suggests talking softly but carrying a big stick, and making sure you have the stick first. We need the same approach with strong AI. By all means go that route, but before doing so we need the big stick. In my analysis, the best means of keeping up with AI is to develop a full direct brain link first, way out at 2040-2045 or even later. If humans have direct mental access to the same or greater level of intelligence as our AIs, then our stick is at least as big, so at least we have a good chance in any fight that happens. If we don’t, then it is like having a much larger son with bigger muscles. You have to hope you have been a good parent. To be safe, best not to build a superhuman AI until after 2050.

I initially wrote this for the Lifeboat Foundation, where it is with other posts at: http://lifeboat.com/blog/2015/02. (If you aren’t familiar with the Lifeboat Foundation, it is a group dedicated to spotting potential dangers and potential solutions to them.)

After LGBT rights: Anonymity is the next battleground for gender identity

Lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual – the increasingly familiar acronym LGBT is also increasingly out of date. It contains a built-in fracture anyway. LGB is about sexual preference and T is about gender, altogether different things although people casually use them synonymously frequently, along with ‘sex’. An LGB or H(etero) person can also be transgender. Gender and sexuality are more complicated than they were and the large cracks in traditional labeling are getting wider. Some LGB people don’t like being lumped in the same rights war with T. There’s even a lesbian/gay separatist movement. Now in some regions and circles, a Q is added for queer/questioning. I was somewhat surprised when that happened because here in the UK, I think many would find the term ‘queer’ offensive and would prefer not to use it. ‘Questioning’ obviously is another dimension of variability so surely it should be QQ in any case?

But as they say, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. We probably need a fresh start for additional words, not to just put lipstick on a pig (I’m an engineer, so I have a license to mix metaphors and to confuse metaphors with other literary constructions when I can’t remember the right term.)

More importantly, lots of people don’t want to be assigned a label and lots don’t want to be ‘outed’. They’re perfectly happy to feel how they do and appear to others how they do without being forced to come out of some imaginary closet to satisfy someone else’s agenda. LGBT people are not all identical, they have different personalities and face different personal battles, so there are tensions within and between gender groups as well as between individuals – tensions over nomenclature, tensions over who should be entitled to what protections, and who can still claim victim-hood, or who ‘represents’ their interests.

Now that important more or less equal rights have been won in most civilized countries, many people in these groups just want to enjoy their freedom, not to be told how to exist by LGBT pressure groups, which just replaces one set of oppression for another. As overall rights are leveled and wars are won, those whose egos and status were defined by that wars potentially lose identity and status so have to be louder and more aggressive to keep attention or move to other countries and cultures. So as equal rights battles close on one front, they open on another. The big battles over gay rights suddenly seem so yesterday. Activists are still fighting old battles that have already been won, while ignoring attacks from other directions.

The primary new battlefront of concern here is privacy and anonymity and it seems to be being ignored so far by LGBT groups, possibly because in some ways it runs against the ethos of forcing people to leave closets whether they want to or not. Without protection, there is a strong danger that in spite of many victories by LGBT campaigners, many people will start to suffer gender identity repression, oppression, identity and self-worth damage who are so far free from it. That would be sad.

While LGBT pressure groups have been fighting for gay and transsexual rights, technology has enabled new dimensions for gender. Even with social networking sites’ new gender options, these so far have not been absorbed into everyday vocabulary for most of us, yet are already inadequate. As people spend more and more of their lives in different roles in the many dimensions of social and virtual interactions, gender has taken on new dimensions that are so far undefended.

I don’t like using contrived terms like cybergender because they can only ever includes a few aspects of the new dimensions. Dimensions by normal definition are orthogonal, so you really need a group of words for each one and therefore many words altogether to fully describe your sexuality and gender identity, and why should you have to describe it anyway, why can’t you just enjoy life as best you can? You shouldn’t have to answer to gender busybodies. Furthermore, finding new names isn’t the point. Most of us won’t remember most of them anyway, and really names only appeal to those who want to keep gender warrior status because they can then fight for a named community. Shakespeare observed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It is the actuality of gender and mind and personality and individuality and personal existential experience that matters, not what we call it. It is gender/sexuality freedom itself that we now need to defend, no longer just LGBT rights, but I suspect some activists can’t tell the difference.

This new phase of gender flexibility creates issues that are far outside the domain of traditional gay rights – the opportunities and problems are different and the new ‘victims’ are often outside the traditional LGBT community. There is certainly a lot of scope for new psychology study but also possibility of new psychiatric issues. For most people though, gender identity fluidity in social networks or virtual worlds is a painless even a rewarding and enjoyable everyday experience, but that makes it no less important to defend. If we don’t defend it, it will be lost. Definitely.

Terms like cis and trans are used to identify whether someone is physically in their birth gender. I hated those terms in chemistry, I think they are equally annoying in gender discussion. They seem to have been created solely to add a pseudo-intellectual layer to ordinary everyday words to create an elite whose only extra skill is knowing the latest terminology. What is wrong with plain english? Look:

Cisgender: denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.

So, to those of us not out fighting a gender rights campaign: a man who feels male inside. Or a woman who feels a woman inside. I don’t actually find that very informative, with or without the pseudo-intellectual crap. It only tells me 10% of what matters.

Also check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cisgender, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender. Wikipedia is supposed by naive users to be up to date but these articles presumably kept up to date by activists appear to me to be about 20 years out of date based on a scan of topic titles – a long list of everyday gender experiences and identity is not covered. That is a big problem that is being obscured by excessive continuing focus on yesterday’s issues and determination to keep any others from sharing the same pedestals.

If a man feels male inside but wears a dress, we may traditionally call him a transvestite just so we have a convenient label, but how he actually feels gender-wise inside may be highly variable and not covered by overly simplistic static names. He might cross-dress for a short-lived sexual thrill, or simply to feel feminine and explore what he consider to be his feminine emotions, or for a stag party game, or as a full everyday lifestyle choice, or a security blanket, or a fashion statement, or political activism, or any number of other things. The essence of how it feels might vary from minute to minute. Internal feelings of identity can all vary as well as the cis and trans prefixes, and as well as sexual preference. But all the multi-dimensional variation seems to be thrown together in transsexuality, however inappropriate it might be. We might as well write LGBeverythingelse!

Let’s stop all the focus on names, and especially stop making changing lists of names and reassigning old-fashioned ones as offensive terms to maintain victim-hood. Let’s focus instead on pursuing true freedom of gender identity, expression, feeling, appearance, behavior, perception, on preserving true fluidity and dynamism, whether a permanent state or in gender play. Gender play freedom is important just as LGB freedom is important. Play makes us human, it is a major factor in making it worth being alive. Gender play often demands anonymity for some people. If a website enforces true identity, then someone cannot go there in their everyday business identity and also use it to explore their gender identity or for gender play. Even if it only insists on gender verification, that will exclude a lot of wannabe members from being how they want to be. If a man wants to pass himself off as a woman in the workplace, he is protected by law. Why can he not also have the same freedom on any website? He may only want to do it on Tuesday evenings, he won’t want that to govern all the rest of his online or everyday life identity.

In a computer game, social network site, virtual world, or in future interactions with various classes of AI and hybrids, gender is dynamic, it is fluid, it is asymmetric, it is asynchronous, it is virtual. It may be disconnected from normal everyday real life gender identity. Some gender play cannot exist without a virtual ‘closet’ because the relationship might depend totally on other people not knowing their identity, let alone their physical sex. The closet of network anonymity is being eroded very quickly though, and that’s why I think it is important that gender activists start focusing their attention on an important pillar of gender identity that has already been attacked and damaged severely, and is in imminent danger of collapsing.

Importance varies tremendously too. Let’s take a few examples in everyday 2015 life to expose some issues or varying importance.

If a woman is into playing a computer games, it is almost inevitable that she will have had no choice but to play as a male character sometimes, because some games only have a male player character. She may have zero interest in gender play and it is no more than a triviality to her to have to play a male character yet again, she just enjoys pulling the trigger and killing everything that moves like everyone else. Suppose she is then playing online. Her username will be exposed to the other players. The username could be her real name or a made-up string of characters. In the first case, her name gives away her female status so she might find it irritating that she now gets nuisance interactions from male players, and if so, she might have to create a new identity with a male-sounding name to avoid being pestered every time she goes online. That is an extremely common everyday experience for millions of women. If the system changes to enforce true identity, she won’t be able to do that and she will then have to deal with lots of nuisances pestering her and trying to chat her up. She might have to avoid using that game network, and thus loses out on all the fun she had. On the other side of the same network, a man might play a game that only has female playable character. With his identity exposed, he might be teased by his mates or family or colleagues for doing so so he also might avoid playing games that don’t use male characters for fear of teasing over his possible sexuality.

So we haven’t even considered anyone who wants to do any gender play yet, but already see gender-related problems resulting from loss of privacy and anonymity.

Let’s move on. Another man might enjoy playing female characters and deliberately pick a female playable character when it is an option. That does not make it a transsexual issue yet. Many men play female characters if the outfits look good. On Mass Effect for example, very many men (including me I have to say) play as Femshep (a female ship captain, called Shepard) because ‘if you’re going to spend 35 hours or more looking at someone’s ass, it might as well be a cute one’. That justification is perfectly believable, it is the one I use, and is the most trivial example of actual gender play. It has no consequence outside of the game. The conversation and interactions in the game are also affected by the character gender, not just the ass in question, so it is slightly immersive and it is a trivially deliberate choice, not enforced by the game so it does qualify as gender play nonetheless. Again, if identity is broadcast along with gender choice, some teasing might result – hardly comparable to the problems which many LGBT people have suffered, but on the other hand, still a small problem that is unnecessary and easily avoidable.

A third man might make exactly the same decision because he enjoys feeling he is female. He is in a totally fantasy environment with fantasy characters, but he extracts a feeling of perceived femininity from playing Femshep. That is the next level of gender play – using it to experience, however slightly, the feeling of being a woman, even if it is just a perception from a male point of view of how a woman might feel.

A fourth might go up another level by taking that online, and choose a female-sounding name so that other players might assume he is a woman. Most wouldn’t make that assumption since gender hopping in social environments is already widespread, but some users take people at face value so it would have some effect, some reward. He could experience other actual people interacting with him as if he was a woman. He might like it and do it regularly. His gender play might never go any further than that. He might still be otherwise 100% male and heterosexual and not harbor any inner thoughts of being a woman, cross-dressing or anything. No lives are changed, but losing anonymity would prevent a lot of such men from doing this. Should they be allowed to? Yes of course would be my answer. Real identity disclosure prevents it if they would be embarrassed if they were found out.

But others might go further. From experiencing real interactions, some men might get very used to being accepted as a woman in virtual environments (ditto for women, though women posing as men is allegedly less common than men posing as women). They may make the same decisions with other networks, other social sites, other shared virtual worlds. They might spend a large part of their free time projecting their perception of a feminine personality, and it might be convincing to others. At this level, rights start to clash.

We might think that a man wanting to be accepted as a woman in such an environment should be able to use a female name and avatar and try to project himself as female. He could in theory do so as a transvestite in real life without fear of legal discrimination, but then he might find it impossible to hide from friends and family and colleagues and might feel ashamed or embarrassed so might not want to go down that road.

Meeting other people inevitably cause friendships and romantic relationships. If a man in a virtual world presents as a woman and someone accepts him as a woman and they become romantically involved, the second person might be emotionally distressed if he later discovers he has been having a relationship with another man. Of course, he might not care, in which case no harm is done. Sometimes two men might each think they are with a woman, both of them acting out a lesbian fling in a virtual world. We start to see where forced identity diclosure would solve some problems, and create others. Should full real identity be enforced? Or just real gender? Or neither? Should it simply be ‘buyer beware’?

Even with this conflict of rights, I believe we should side with privacy and anonymity. Without it, a lot of this experimentation is blocked, because of the danger of embarrassment or shame given the personal situations of the parties involved. This kind of gender play via games or online socializing or virtual worlds is very common. A lot of men and women are able to explore and enjoy aspects of their personality, gender and sexuality that they otherwise couldn’t. A lot of people have low social skills that make it hard to interact face to face. Others are not sufficiently physically attractive to find it easy to get real dates. They are no less valuable or important than anyone else. Who has the right to say they shouldn’t be able to use a virtual world or social network site to find dates that would otherwise be out of their league, or interact via typing in ways they could never do in real-time speech?

I don’t have any figures. I have looked for them, but can’t find them. That to me says this whole field needs proper study. But my own experience in early chat rooms in the late 1990s says that a lot of people do gender-hopping online who would never dare in real life. And that was even before we had visual avatars or online worlds like second life or sex sites. Lots of perfectly normal people with perfectly normal lives and even perfectly normal sex lives still gender hop secretly.

Back to names. What if someone is talking as one gender on the phone at the same time as interacting as another gender in a virtual world? Their virtual gender might change frequently too. They may enjoy hopping between male and female in that virtual world, they may even enjoy being ‘forced’ to. People can vary their gender from second to second, it might depend on any aspect of location, time or context, they can run mutliple genders and sexualities in parallel at the same time in different domains or even in the same domain. Gender has already become very multidimensional, and it will become increasingly so as we progress further into this century. Take the gender-hopping activity in virtual worlds and then add direct nervous system links, shared experience, shared bodies, robot avatars, direct brain links, remote control, electronic personality mods, the ability to swap bodies or to switch people’s consciousness on and off. And then keep going, the technology will never stop developing.

Bisexual, tri-sexual, try-sexual, die-sexual, lie-sexual, why-sexual, my-sexual, even pie-sexual, the list of potential variations of gender identity and sexual practices and preferences is expanding fast towards infinity. Some people are happy to do things in the real world in full exposure. Others can only do so behind a wall of privacy and anonymity for any number of reasons. We should protect their right to do so, because the joy and fulfillment and identity they may get from their gender play is no less important than anyone else’s.

LGBT rights activism is just so yesterday! Let’s protect the new front line where anonymity, freedom of identity, and privacy are all being attacked daily. Only then can we keep gender freedom and gender identity freedom.

Meanwhile, the activists we need are still fighting at the back.

 

 

42: the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy’ for which introduction to I am grateful to my friend Padraig McKeag.

He listed 42 as the answer to The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. A good choice I think.

Optional waffle: (I almost met Adams once since we were booked for the same book launch debate, but sadly he had to withdraw on the day so it never happened, and I never got a chance to be one of the many who asked him. On the other hand, the few personal idols I have actually met have confirmed that you should never meet your idols, and mentioning no names, it can be an extremely disappointing experience, so maybe it’s best that I can keep Douglas Adams as one of my favorite authors of all time.)

Speculation on Adams’ use of 42 is well documented. 42 is 101010 in binary, and in base 13, 6 x 9 = 42, 42 is the wildcard symbol * in ASCII etc. Adams denied these, saying 42 had just been a random choice. Check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrases_from_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy for more speculations and commentary. Having picked 42, the 6 x 9 joke is exactly what I suspect I would have written to justify it. It is the probably the most common multiplication error for the mathematically differently gifted. I don’t believe the base 13 or asterisk explanations. They are amusing but don’t hold water as The True Answer. I can happily accept he just picked it at random, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong.

101010 has a nice symmetry, a single number with two digits in three groups and 1-2-3 symmetry is itself a fact of life, the universe and everything. It is universally present. It is the basis of fractals, a sort of recursive symmetry which govern many aspects of the development of life, even a key foundation of consciousness.

101010

Suppose 1 and 0 represent the most fundamental things we observe about nature – wave-particle duality, on or off, life or death, existence or non-existence. Above that, we start to see all sorts of 3-way symmetry:

Nature

 

So if you have a lazy day and no boss breathing down your neck, it’s entirely possible to see at least some aspects of The Question of Life the Universe and Everything that might lead to an answer of 42.

In a networked age, nice guys win

A wide variety of marketing tools have been developed to fool customers into buying products that are more expensive than they need. A huge volume of psychology research has created departments of precision marketing staff whose main skill is tricking customers. Coupled with accounting trickery, pricing, packaging and phantom special offer tricks are often used to disguise price hikes or pretend something is a bargain when it simply isn’t.

This is not clever. It is dumb. It reaps an apparent short term gain at the expense of overall customer spending and customer loyalty. If you want proof, Tesco is proof. Even the dumbest Tesco customers eventually noticed that the company had changed from one that was looking after their interests and giving excellent service and excellent prices to one that seemed to be trying hard to trick and fleece them at every opportunity. Since marketers share ideas, the other big supermarkets used many of the same practices, with the same result. When new entrants arrived that didn’t try to trick people, customers walked and profits dived.

Using the very latest psychology and neuroscience is not the problem. Nor is honing marketing and sales tools to the Nth degree. It is using those top level skills while forgetting the basics that is bad, or worse still, using them quite deliberately to abuse customers.

Customers like to feel they are getting genuinely good products at genuinely good prices. If they are used to that in a shop, they come to feel safe there and more willing to spend. They don’t feel on their guard all the time, feeling they have to do hard sums to work out which one is the least rip-off, and buying only what they need, saving the rest for elsewhere. When they feel safe, they spend more, they buy things they might not otherwise have bought, and they’ll come back again and again, so your profits will be sustainable. They take far more notice of your marketing too. They won’t look at something and then go and shop around for it online. They come to trust you, and they’ll do more business with you. That is so simple and obvious it doesn’t need years of training to learn. Being simple doesn’t mean it is untrue. Basics are easy, but still important.

Good marketing lets customers know about your product and its relative merits. It can even be honest about its limitations. Good marketing is that which customers would seek out themselves if you didn’t deliver it to them already. Bad marketing is trying to fool someone into buying something they otherwise wouldn’t. You can fool someone once, maybe twice, but in the end it is you who loses a good customer. Social media exposes trickery quickly and effectively and tricksters lose. In the networked age, nice guys win.

If you use sophisticated marketing to fool customers, the fool is you. If you want a friend, be a friend.

Increasing censorship will lead to increasing loneliness

Like many people reading the news, I am rather baffled at the new wave of apparent offense caused by another perfectly innocent use of a word that has simply gone out of fashion. Benedict Cumberbatch accidentally used the word ‘coloured’ when referring to a black person. He intended no offense and it was presumably a simple slip of the tongue based on his early education on good manners. People use all sorts of words and grammar when speaking that they would filter, rearrange or translate when writing.

When I was young in 1970s Belfast, ‘black’ was considered impolite and ‘coloured’ was considered more respectful. Fashion has changed and ‘black’ is the current polite word in the UK, I think. People adapt and learn eventually, but occasional accidental reversion to earlier terminology in real time interactions ought to be accepted by reasonable people. But it isn’t as simple as that.

The US-based civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People evidently still uses the word ‘colored’. It is initially hard to understand why an organisation that represents black people would use a word in their actual title that is actually considered offensive elsewhere, in the internet age. There is a feasible explanation though, thanks to Aisha (@aisha_rsh) for the link: http://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-NAACP-still-use-Colored-People-in-the-organizations-name-Like-Negro-that-term-appears-to-be-outdated-Some-even-find-it-offensive

That’s fine, I sort of understand, but even so, it does seem that alleged hurt feelings are somewhat exaggerated. Those who claim to be offended by it are presumably not offended when the largest black rights organisation uses it, even if for reasons of honoring tradition. If it is only offensive when spoken by a non-black such as Cumberbatch, then that is a form of mild racism against whites. Racism is bad in either direction. We should all have the same rules and have equal access to the same vocabulary. I’m all for full and true equality, but against any group claiming superiority, even via alleged victim-hood and deliberate offense-taking. In any case, my parents taught me about sticks and stones and the lesson stuck well. I’ve experienced plenty of name-calling but never lost any sleep over it.

People can be hurt by words, and when that hurt is genuine, then apologies are justified and Cumberbatch has apologized for any offence he caused. However, let’s also remember that taking offense when no offense is intended can be and often is an offensive act. It can be a form of aggression, of putting down the other while putting oneself on a pedestal. In this case, some of the comment certainly falls in that category.

However, after a 400 word intro, I am becoming aware I am drifting off my intended point. Which is:

At the moment, we are seeing worldwide a growing conflict between sub-communities. With too much genuine misery and genuine discrimination and genuine oppression in the world, there is also a great deal of parallel abuse of those good people who want to stop it and ensure a fairer world for all. It is one thing to be freed from oppression and exploitation; it is quite another to use someone else’s oppression to advantage yourself. Having genuine victims in a community does not justify a free pass for that entire community any more than prejudice is justified against an entire community because of the actions of a few.

However, that seems to be the road we have been travelling. In trying to fight prejudice, sometimes we end up with privileged treatment for certain social groups. A small temporary overshoot is fine, as long as a level playing field eventually comes. The problem is when overshoot and privilege produces lasting barriers. When special treatment is available, it inevitably becomes a source of tribal competition and conflict and reinforces barriers instead of removing them.

If people have to stick to special vocabulary on pain of losing their career, if they are forced to censor everything they say or write or do to avoid causing offence to the easily or intentionally or even professionally offended or attracting criticism from sanctimonious busybodies or even the police, then instead of tribal boundaries being wiped away and social cohesion and inclusion  improving, communication between groups and between individuals drops, barriers grow and are reinforced, stresses rise, and social inclusion drops and loneliness increases.

Protection of the disadvantaged is a noble cause, but it must be restricted to those that are actually disadvantaged and it must stop once protection is effective. If it is allowed to increase beyond equality or extend to entire social groups, or if privilege remains permanent, then it causes division and reverse oppression.

This matters. Tribalism is a big problem. Loneliness is a massive social problem. People need to communicate, they need friends. If they don’t feel free to speak due to (possibly exaggerated) fear of possible condemnation, then they may self-censor, keep their thoughts to themselves, restrict their social activities, withdraw and become isolated and lonely. That is not a healthy trend.

Censorship is increasing rapidly. Surveillance is increasing rapidly too, especially including social surveillance in media such as twitter and Facebook by both police and random busybodies. Quality of relationships online is generally lower than face to face relationships, and loneliness is already increasing. Adding to that will make it worse and worse.

Left unaddressed, this problem looks set to worsen. Barriers are growing, and being locked in place, then cameras and microphones are being added to the barriers. Meanwhile, penalties are increasing. A single word that is merely out of date and otherwise innocently used can destroy a career.

All nice people want a nice world where everyone is treated fairly and oppression has vanished. We should avoid offending people unnecessarily, but we must also be forgiving when no offence is intended or a word is no more than an innocent slip of the tongue. We need to be far better at dealing with specific instances of disadvantage or oppression and far less willing to grant long-term privileges to entire social groups. And most of all, we need to restore true freedom of speech or suffer some pretty big social problems.

Make no mistake. The busybodies and the deliberately offended are the new Spanish Inquisition. We really don’t want them in charge.

 

Suspended animation and mind transfer as suicide alternatives

I last wrote about suicide in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/the-future-of-euthanasia-and-suicide/ but this time, I want to take a different line of thought. Instead of looking at suicide per se, what about alternatives?

There are many motives for suicide but the most common is wanting to escape from a situation such as suffering intolerable pain or misery, which can arise from a huge range of causes. The victim looks at the potential futures available to them and in their analysis, the merits of remaining alive are less attractive than being dead.

The ‘being dead’ bit is not necessarily about a full ceasing of existence, but more about abdicating consciousness, with its implied sensory inputs, pain, anxiety, inner turmoil, or responsibility.

Last summer, a development in neuroscience offered the future potential to switch the brain off:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/switching-people-off/

The researchers were aware that it may become an alternative to anesthetic, or even a means of avoiding boredom or fear. There are many situations where we want to temporarily suspend consciousness. Alcohol and drug abuse often arises from people using chemical means of doing so.

It seems to me that suicide offers a permanent version of the same, to be switched off forever, but with a key difference. In the anesthetic situation, normal life will resume with its associated problems. In suicide, it won’t. The problems are gone.

Suppose that people could get switched off for a very long time whilst being biologically maintained and housed somehow. Suppose it is long enough that any personal relationship issues will have vanished, that any debts, crimes or other legal issues are nullified, and that any pain or other health problems can be fixed, including fixing mental health issues and erasing of intolerable memories if necessary. In many cases, that would be a suitable alternative to suicide. It offers the advantages of escaping the problems, but with the advantage that a better life might follow some time far in the future.

These have widely varying timescales for potential delivery, and there are numerous big issues, but I don’t see fundamental technology barriers here. Suspending the mind for as long as necessary might offer a reasonable alternative to suicide, at least in principle. There is no need to look at all the numerous surrounding issues though. Consider taking that general principle and adapting it a bit. Mid-century onwards, we’ll have direct brain links sufficiently developed to allow porting of the mind to a new body, and android one for example. Having a new identity and a new body and a properly working and sanitized ‘brain’ would satisfy many of these same goals and avoid many of the legal, environmental, financial and ethical issues surrounding indefinite suspension. The person could simply cease their unpleasant existence and start afresh with a better one. I think it would be fine to kill the old body after the successful transfer. Any legal associations with the previous existence could be nullified. It is just a damaged container that would have been destroyed anyway. Have it destroyed, along with all its problems, and move on.

Mid-century is a lot earlier than would be needed for any social issues to go away otherwise. If a suicide is considered because of relationship or family problems, those problems might otherwise linger for generations. Creating a true new identity essentially solves them, albeit at a high cost of losing any relationships that matter. Long prison sentences are substituted by the biological death, debts similarly. A new person appears, inheriting a mind, but one refreshed, potentially with the bad bits filtered out.

Such a future seems to be feasible technically, and I think it is also ethically feasible. Suicide is one sided. Those remaining have to suffer the loss and pick up the pieces anyway, and they would be no worse off in this scenario, and if they feel aggrieved that the person has somehow escaped the consequences of their actions, then they would have escaped anyway. But a life is saved and someone gets a second chance.

 

 

Stimulative technology

You are sick of reading about disruptive technology, well, I am anyway. When a technology changes many areas of life and business dramatically it is often labelled disruptive technology. Disruption was the business strategy buzzword of the last decade. Great news though: the primarily disruptive phase of IT is rapidly being replaced by a more stimulative phase, where it still changes things but in a more creative way. Disruption hasn’t stopped, it’s just not going to be the headline effect. Stimulation will replace it. It isn’t just IT that is changing either, but materials and biotech too.

Stimulative technology creates new areas of business, new industries, new areas of lifestyle. It isn’t new per se. The invention of the wheel is an excellent example. It destroyed a cave industry based on log rolling, and doubtless a few cavemen had to retrain from their carrying or log-rolling careers.

I won’t waffle on for ages here, I don’t need to. The internet of things, digital jewelry, active skin, AI, neural chips, storage and processing that is physically tiny but with huge capacity, dirt cheap displays, lighting, local 3D mapping and location, 3D printing, far-reach inductive powering, virtual and augmented reality, smart drugs and delivery systems, drones, new super-materials such as graphene and molybdenene, spray-on solar … The list carries on and on. These are all developing very, very quickly now, and are all capable of stimulating entire new industries and revolutionizing lifestyle and the way we do business. They will certainly disrupt, but they will stimulate even more. Some jobs will be wiped out, but more will be created. Pretty much everything will be affected hugely, but mostly beneficially and creatively. The economy will grow faster, there will be many beneficial effects across the board, including the arts and social development as well as manufacturing industry, other commerce and politics. Overall, we will live better lives as a result.

So, you read it here first. Stimulative technology is the next disruptive technology.

 

Corporate morality

I wrote about many forms of exploitation in my book Total Sustainability and many of the things we dislike about business come down to that. There exists a stereotypical business executive for whom getting to the top is all that matters, and it doesn’t matter how many people they walk over on the way. Their mantra: “business is business.” Some executives are proud of being ruthless and scornful of factoring any morality into their deals, taking maximum advantage of any weakness in their opposition wherever they can. Thankfully, those in that stereotype are the minority. Most business people are decent people trying to make an honest living by providing good products and services to their customers while treating their employees as well as they can. The proof of that is that business scandals still make the news. Most people exercise the same sort of moral behavior in their companies that they do in everyday life and some studies have shown that around 90% of people are good and honest.

Anthony Howard wrote a blog on the issue of corporate moral obligation too, at: http://anthonyphoward.com/do-boards-have-any-moral-obligation/

Unsurprisingly, our views overlap. Most people agree that amoral and immoral corporates will have to behave better, and if they don’t they will face consequences thanks to the transparency and immediacy of the net and the speed at which consequences can appear. The ethical wolf is at the door.

In the age of corporate social responsibility and instantaneous network shaming, most companies already understand that they must appear to be doing the right thing so they have CSR departments. In most but not all cases, the CSR Department’s job is actually to figure out how to do better rather than replicating the marketing department job of spinning reality to achieve the best message. The few that pick the latter approach face regular social media embarrassment. Sunlight is a good disinfectant.

A few companies seem to aim for the minimum legal standards. As Anthony observed, their view is that they can do anything legal and that if people want them to behave better than the law should be changed to force them to. Some try to spin being greedy and irresponsible as fulfilling their corporate duties to their owners as well as possible. Voluntary codes simply don’t work to ensure good behavior when some companies take the line that anything goes if it’s legal. These companies believe that nice guys finish last, and spoil the markets for everyone. Forcing nasty people and nasty companies to do what nice people and nice companies do voluntarily adds very expensive rule-making, administration, checks and policing that everyone then has to pay for. Until then, there is temptation for the nice guys to behave worse to keep up with the bad guys.

That the law is badly written with lots of loopholes and with major differences still between nations reflects very badly on governments and the international governance that they have negotiated. Companies can still avoid paying fair taxes just by moving money among their offices in different countries, or duck environmental rules by moving operations or exploit employees by picking the right host country. These are legal but not moral. Bad laws do not justify bad behavior, even if they do accidentally permit it. Behaving ruthlessly and searching for loopholes to use does not make you a business genius, it just means you are a nasty exploitative person who happens to be in business.

Social networks and effective media are good at exposing bad practices and rewarding better ones and as the networks continue to mature, transparency may improve further.

One issue though that may tip the balance over the coming years is machine intelligence. People on company boards know they should act responsibly, that their company is a part of the wider economy, and most board members’ humanity would make them inclined to try to be responsible and to give something, not just be a parasite. If they choose to be parasitic, though it may be legal, they will face frequent conflict and shaming and ultimately their market suffers. Human nature includes emotions a strong moral enforcement mechanism. Nasty people can choose to ignore it, but most people are not nasty.

A machine-AI-based company might not care about being disliked but would still face social backlash and market decline if it behaves badly. The trouble is, although most machine-run companies would presumably be initially set up to behave well, others may be deliberately tuned to be as exploitative as they can get away with. Some such AI companies could be inherently agile, mobile, and even capable of evolving, just evolutionary algorithms wandering the clouds, immediately exploiting any weaknesses in any niches they find for a fast buck, rather like the malware we’re already used to but more effective. This is the next generation of the same sort of AI already embedded in City trading. Bankers may be disliked but they will seem like angels compared to the gutter level of next generation AI companies.

In the human system, backlash against bankers eventually led to a politically motivated crackdown on practices and rewards, and even though they have lobbied and fought to delay real punishment there can be little doubt that it is a battle they will eventually lose. More recently, backlash against global corporate tax avoidance has also resulted in new regulations and taxes.

With AI companies psychologically immune to emotional or political pressures, there is only one approach that can work and that is to fix the global corporate taxation treaties and other regulation, fixing the loopholes and bringing it all into line with what people consider reasonable behavior rather than the minimum acceptable. That is quite a task. Shabby lawmaking has been with us  far too long and there are lots of things to fix. But if political pressures haven’t been strong enough yet to get the task well under way, it won’t be much longer before they are. It will be difficult and expensive, but there will be no choice.

When that’s done, companies can still behave very well if they wish and reap deserved market benefits, but amoral and immoral companies will have no choice but to behave at the levels deemed reasonable.

However…

This solution requires that it is possible to police activity online and to block or eliminate rogue AI companies. Those that stick to the law would not be a problem, but some won’t if it possible to evade detection. With our national security services already moaning about the latest encryption systems, it may well be possible and even easy to evade detection long enough to make a quick profit, evolve,  and move on with a fresh instance to another target. Not all industries are susceptible of course. If manufacturing or distribution of physical products is required, then policing can move back into the physical world. If it is just electronic business such as mediating or advising or providing data, then companies could arise, exploit, cash in and move on within very short times, theoretically fractions of a second. Heavily encrypted organisations that only exists short times and are distributed among many servers may be impossible to police. Without policing, temptation is strong, and AIs could be set up to set up other AIs to set up other AIs to exploit whatever they can however they can and deposit the rewards in complex chains of accounts, also managed by AIs to provide fund extraction on demand.

This scenario is technologically feasible and could become a foundation of the future online criminal industry. It is limited to certain niches though, so it isn’t much of a nightmare. Most of industry and commerce still has to function within the law to do business effectively. The companies in those very dominant sectors will behave reasonably or better.

So… the future has a similar pattern to today – most companies behaving well or OK, and a few rogues, but the balance will be better. The minimum standards are likely to be higher, more of the holes in the rules will be sealed, and there will be a better relationship between companies and the communities in which they do business. Not perfect, but still better. I’ll settle for that.