Quotable (#102)

Revenge of the nerds accelerates, at Grey Enlightenment:

In the post-2008 era, social awkwardness, a defining characteristic of Asperger syndrome, is the new ‘cool’, in contrast to being all style and no substance, since awkwardness conveys authenticity and competence. It seems people with the ‘good’ social skills are putting those skills to use at Starbucks, for example, asking techies in line what toppings they want on their coffee, while those who are better at reading code and equations than reading faces are making all of the money in today’s economy. In what could be called the the tyranny of the bookish, today’s cognitive elite, like the 21st century equivalent of kings and barons, are being waited on by the ‘servants’ in the low-paid, but very competitive service sector. Cognitive capital, more than ever, has precedence over social capital, and this is exemplified by the meritocracy that is the tech culture of Silicon Valley, where anyone with a good idea can become instantly immensely rich and successful through hard work and raw intellect instead of family connections.

(Via.)

Quotable (#101)

Nuance on encryption from some senior voices in the US security establishment:

We recognize the importance our officials attach to being able to decrypt a coded communication under a warrant or similar legal authority. But the issue that has not been addressed is the competing priorities that support the companies’ resistance to building in a back door or duplicated key for decryption. We believe that the greater public good is a secure communications infrastructure protected by ubiquitous encryption at the device, server and enterprise level without building in means for government monitoring. […] … Strategically, the interests of U.S. businesses are essential to protecting U.S. national security interests. After all, political power and military power are derived from economic strength. If the United States is to maintain its global role and influence, protecting business interests from massive economic espionage is essential. And that imperative may outweigh the tactical benefit of making encrypted communications more easily accessible to Western authorities.

ADDED: Friedersdorf comments.

Make it Stop II

Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers (with huge list of signatories):

Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.

Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits. Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.

In summary, we believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.

This is an important document, that is bound to be influential. If the orchestrated collective action of the human species could in fact stop a militaristic AI arms race, however, it could stop anything. There’s not much sign of that. Global coordination in the direction of explicit political objectives is inaccessible. The process is already “beyond meaningful human control”.

Arms races — due to their powerful positive feedback — are the way threshold events happen. Almost certainly, the terrestrial installation of advanced machine intelligence will be another instance of this general rule. Granted, it’s not an easy topic to be realistic about.

(‘Make it Stop’ I, was devoted to the same futile hope.)

ADDED: At The Verge (with video).

Urban Revitalization

DetroitSatan

The Daily Telegraph explains:

Several hundred people have attended a Mass at a US Catholic church to protest against an eight and a half-foot (2.6-metre)-tall bronze statue of Satan that hundreds of people also lined up to see. […] The Satanic Temple had said it would unveil the statue on Saturday at a Detroit location that only people with tickets would know about. Hundreds lined up on Saturday evening to get the tickets as Christian protesters rallied nearby. […] The bronze Baphomet statue, featuring a human body, goat’s head and wings, was unveiled just before midnight to cheers of “Hail Satan”. Statues of a boy and a girl in poses of adoration stand on either side.

The statue had been planned for the state Capitol in Oklahoma City until Oklahoma’s Supreme Court banned all religious displays on Capitol grounds. […] The Satanic Temple now says it wants to erect it outside Arkansas’ statehouse, where a Ten Commandments monument also is planned.

Big Plans

Whatever else this might be, it’s big.

For decades, China’s government has tried to limit the size of Beijing, the capital, through draconian residency permits. Now, the government has embarked on an ambitious plan to make Beijing the center of a new supercity of 130 million people. […] The planned megalopolis, a metropolitan area that would be about six times the size of New York’s, is meant to revamp northern China’s economy and become a laboratory for modern urban growth. […] “The supercity is the vanguard of economic reform,” said Liu Gang, a professor at Nankai University in Tianjin who advises local governments on regional development. “It reflects the senior leadership’s views on the need for integration, innovation and environmental protection.” […] The new region will link the research facilities and creative culture of Beijing with the economic muscle of the port city of Tianjin and the hinterlands of Hebei Province, forcing areas that have never cooperated to work together.

The integrated ‘supercity’ would have a population larger than Japan’s (and larger than all but eight countries in the world, excluding China itself).

Interesting Times

Blockchain schizophrenia is reaching criticality:

So we find ourselves in the Bitcoin “missile crisis,” and uncomfortable ironies abound. The decentralized currency is beset by centralizing pressures if it changes or if it doesn’t. The apolitical currency is being rent by a deeply political rift between camps, each of which purports to be the trusted authority over the trustless, anti-authoritarian currency.

No one ever said anarchistic collective decision-making was going to be easy.

(Via.)

Quotable (#100)

Jacob Soll on those well-balanced Dutch:

Any system of enforcing fiscal discipline is an incursion against the absolute control of the account-holder, and kings and the powerful tended to see themselves above the merchant-like calculations of bookkeeping. They not only hid their wealth and debts: They often did not bother to calculate them. In the end, they saw themselves as only accountable to God; if they needed more ready cash, they could always lean on their inferiors. At least in the short run, it was far more comfortable to govern without the constraints of financial accountability. […] But in one place, the idea of financial accountability did take hold. By the early 1500s, Holland had become the center of global trade, with Antwerp and later Amsterdam acting as the most important ports in the world. Ships arrived laden with spices, exotic fruit, minerals, animals, whale oil, cloths, and other luxury goods. In 1602, the Dutch government in essence created modern capitalism by founding both the first publicly traded company — the Dutch East India Company, or VOC — and the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. […] Accounting was central to managing not only these companies, but also the Dutch government itself. While not all tax collectors or company managers kept perfect double-entry books, it represented an ideal. It was also seen as a necessary skill for civic participation. Most members of Dutch society were fluent in accounting, having studied at home or in publicly funded city accounting schools. […] Double-entry accounting made it possible to calculate profit and capital and for managers, investors, and authorities to verify books. But at the time, it also had a moral implication. Keeping one’s books balanced wasn’t simply a matter of law, but an imitation of God, who kept moral accounts of humanity and tallied them in the Books of Life and Death. It was a financial technique whose power lay beyond the accountants, and beyond even the wealthy people who employed them.

Quotable (#99)

Bleak is the new black (from Žižek):

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that “thought is the courage of hopelessness” – an insight which is especially pertinent for our historical moment when even the most pessimist diagnostics as a rule finishes with an uplifting hint at some version of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish which prevents us thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction.

ADDED: Dark Ecologies comments (not especially approvingly).