This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

20th July 2014

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An Uncomfortable Realization of Human-Machine Equivalence

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Many news stories recently announced that a machine had reportedly passed the Turing test (cf., e.g., Computer AI passes Turing test in ‘world first’), a philosophical thought experiment first formulated by computer pioneer Alan Turing. After the announcement, many second thoughts were voiced. Turing tests are usually conducted in the context of significant parameters, so that it is not a free-wheeling discussion in which any topic is fair game.

For most who read these headlines, the “uncomfortable realization” brought about by the Turing test would be that machines are slowly but surely catching up with us, and what this will mean for us. Such anxieties are presented in The danger of ‘emotional’ machines Newspapers and magazines (now more on line than in print, but the principle is the same — where it was once headlines, now it is clickbait) love this sort of thing, like some years ago when Time magazine devoted a cover story to the the defeat of Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue.

The Deep Blue test, like the Turing test, was a great stunt, but it cannot be compared to a real contest. While Deep Blue and its programmers were able to extensively study Kasparov’s games, Kasparov was not given an opportunity to study the games of Deep Blue. This might sound like a technicality, but I don’t think so. However, this isn’t what I want to write about today.

Apart from the obvious discomfort one might feel with the idea that computers are catching up to us, which carries with it significant economic anxiety, as manifested by recent discussion of technological unemployment, there is another discomfort that we ought to feel. With the focus of the discussion being on computers mistaken for human beings, what we miss is the possibility of human beings being mistaken for computers, and this is a potentially very painful realization. 

Despite the claim of the Declaration of Independence, all human beings are not created equal, but are rather endowed with a range of distinct abilities, talents, and capacities, even if all have the same rights in the democratic society. It is because of this inherent inequality that there is also an inherent tension between freedom and equality. A free society will have significant inequality; social measures taken to reign in inequality achieve their end by reducing freedom. Like mistaking a person for a mere machine, this is something that we generally don’t like to think about.

For obvious anthropocentric reasons, it is difficult for us human beings to think of ourselves and our kind in objective terms. “Human” tends to carry positive connotations (usually, but not always), while “inhuman” carries negative connotations. Similar considerations hold for personhood, which is usually unproblematically equated with human beings. Human persons have a special value for us — I have often quoted Francis Fukuyama in his connection, who said, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct." — so that any suggestion that deprecates the value of human persons is perceived as an attack on our anthropocentric values.

Given the ideals and warm, fuzzy feelings we have about human persons, we don’t like to think that a great many persons in the world have very little in them of the spark of creativity and spontaneous joy of conscious life. If we viewed the human population on the whole in terms of the lowest common denominator instead of the exceptional outliers that stimulate and entertain us, then I think a great many human persons might be mistaken for unimaginative computer programs intended to simulate human interaction.

This observation, I am fully aware, devalues human persons and is profoundly anti-democratic, but it needs to be said. We may deny it all we like, and insist upon the contrary, but the day is coming when only a few truly imaginative individuals will clearly and unambiguously distinguish themselves from machines, whereas the bulk of human beings will struggle merely to retain their identification with humanity in order to distinguish themselves from machines from which they are otherwise indistinguishable.

If and when machine consciousness emerges (and this is the real game-changer, unlike AI without self-awareness), even the best and brightest will find themselves challenged, and distinct forms of consciousness will emerge to serve specific functions.

Tagged: AIartificial intelligencemachine intelligenceTuring testAlan TuringAnthony ZurcherFrancis Fukuyamapersonhoodhumanitymachine consciousnessself-awarenesshuman being

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18th July 2014

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Early risers 'less moral at night' →

he persistent and pervasive pathologicalization of eccentric waking and sleeping schedules. 

Being myself primarily noctural, I have a great interest in these sleep studies, and previously wrote about sleep schedules in Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) as well as commenting on another story, Night Owls more likely to have dark triad of personality traits, which was a typical hatchet job of individuals who don’t get up and go to bed early.

Just yesterday I commented on What our descendants will deplore about us, and to the list of our blindspots recounted in that post we could add the bizarre insistence that everyone should sleep and work on the same schedule — is this another instance of enlightenment universalism? — regardless of their natural body clock. The important thing is that everyone is healthier, happier, and more productive when they get plenty of restful sleep, and not that everyone should sleep at the same time in a kind of circadian conformity.

Tagged: DSPSDelayed sleep phase syndromenight owlsmorning larksSean Coughlancircadian rhythmsleep

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17th July 2014

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What our descendants will deplore about us →

This longish BBC Future article by Tom Chatfield explores the question of what our descendants might hate about us, i.e., why they might hate what the contemporary world is doing and the legacy that it is bequeathing to the future. This approach is taken up in a self-conscious effort to avoid a triumphalist futurism that is overly-smug about our accomplishments. 

Tom Chatfield chats up James Lovelock of gaia fame, economist Kate Raworth, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, well-known animal rights philosopher Peter Singer, author Roman Krznaric, existential risk theorist Nick Bostrom, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, philosopher Stuart Armstrong, and science fiction author Greg Bear, each of whom proposes a particular blindspot or failing of our time that may well be deplored in the future.

Near the beginning of this article the author writes:

I was swapping ideas about this with Tom Standage, author and digital editor of The Economist …as he put it to me: “how easy it is to be self-congratulatory about how much less prejudiced we are than previous generations”. This form of hindsight can be dangerously smug. It can become both a way of praising ourselves for progress rather than looking for it to continue, and of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable aspects of the present.

Neither the author nor his interviewees mention transhumanism, though in the several discussions of how we might be viewed as prejudiced in the future it seems pretty obvious to me that the contemporary debate over transhumanism is a paradigm case of an “uncomfortable aspect of the present,” especially given that the thin edge of the wedge of transhumanism has already begun to affect the way ordinary people live their lives (by which I mean medical treatments such as artificial organs and the pharmacological alteration of human personality).

Transhumanism divides individuals quite dramatically on grounds of moral principle, with many contending that the very idea of altering human beings is the secular equivalent of sacrilege, while others (probably a minority) hold that without embracing transhumanism we in effect guarantee human stagnation.

For my part, I think that the most hyperbolic condemnations to be found of transhumanism today (and there are many) will come to seem strikingly shortsighted, though since we have already incrementally and without realizing it launched ourselves on a transhumanist trajectory, this past condemnation may be not so much deplored as pitied.

Tagged: Tom Chatfieldtranshumanismfuturismlegacy

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16th July 2014

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Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.—Between Aiges-Mortes and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, both pleasant tourist towns in the Camargue that are well worth seeing, there is a simple country house that is a good place to stay in the region, Mas de Sylvéréal. It isn’t luxurious, but it is convenient and is set in a typical camargue landscape. There are also many reasonable places to stay very near the beach in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and they even had vacancies on a holiday weekend in the summer while the Feria du Cheval was being held in town. The lodgings in Aigues-Mortes are more upscale. Wherever you stay, the Camargue is worth seeing, and is in easy driving distance from many famous cities in the Provence, such as Aix, Arles, and Avignon

Tagged: traveltourismsightseeingFranceCamargueSaintes-Maries-de-la-MerMas de Sylvéréal

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16th July 2014

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Palais des Papes.—In another post I mentioned spending Bastille Day seeing fireworks at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. That was in the evening, but earlier in the day I took a day trip to Avignon so that I could see one of the most impressive secular Gothic structures in Europe, the Palace of the Popes. I call this a secular Gothic structure because, although it does contain churches within the structure, one must think of the palace of the Popes as primarily the administrative center of the largest transnational non-state entity of the Middle Ages, and in this sense it really was a palace — and a treasury, and a fortress, and living quarters, among other functions. Avignon, by the way, was very busy, not only with Bastille Day celebrations including a bicycle race that shut down many streets and made parking difficult, but also with some kind of theatrical festival. The main courtyard of the palace of the Popes was fixed up as a large stage for theatrical production, and ever corner of the city that could be exapted for a stage was being so used. The old city was literally papered over in theater posters for a dizzying variety of spectacles, which made it colorful, and actors dressed up in outlandish costumes were roaming the streets everywhere handing out promotional materials and, in many cases, free tickets. Imagine an entire city taken over by theater people and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that people like to travel in high season, as there is always something going on wherever you go. 

Tagged: FranceAvignonPalais des Papessecular gothictraveltourismsightseeingpalace of the Popes

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15th July 2014

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After spending almost a week on Sardinia, I flew from Cagliari to Marseilles, and once in Marseilles took a rental car into the southernmost portion of Provence, which is known as the Camargue, a large wetland on the Mediterranean coast famous for its white horses. My principal aim here was to see Aigues-Mortes (literally meaning dead waters), which is an extremely rare example of a purposefully designed and built medieval city. The city was built at the order of King Louis IX (later Saint Louis) as a staging point for the Crusades and as an opening of French power onto the Mediterranean. The city was celebrating the 800th birthday of Louis IX, so there were several interesting exhibitions connected with this. We think of medieval cities are being characteristically meandering and winding in their street patterns, but Aigues-Mortes is as regular in its street plan as any Roman or contemporary city, which goes to show you that medieval civilization, when not enraptured with its own sense of whimsey, was perfectly capable to straight lines and square corners. Aigues-Mortes has largely retained its medieval character despite being transformed into a tourist town, and as at Rothenberg or Dubrovnik, one can walk the entire circuit of the intact medieval walls. 

Tagged: Aigues-MortesFranceCamarguetraveltourism

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15th July 2014

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Sardinia is known for nuraghe, which are the remains of a prehistoric culture or civilization (that is a matter for discussion at another time) that flourished on Sardinia three to five thousand years ago. Some of these nuraghe are mere piles of stone, but some are quite substantial and still somewhat intact. I visited Nuraghe Losa on my drive south from Castelsardo to Cagliari, which is among the largest of the nuraghic remnants. It was a real eye-opening experience to visit this massive stone construction, both to see how much detail remains from a neolithic people — the boundaries of their life were laid out in stone, so so they were preserved — but also to see the continuity of the neolithic past with the present. I remarked on this in my recent post on Sardinian baasketry, and here at Nuraghe Losa it is evident architecturally. While the nuraghic peoples did not know a true arch, they built with what are called corbeled arches and corbeled domes, which is when walls are built closer together at the top until they eventually meet. In the pictures about you can see a corbeled doorway and a corbeled dome. Nuraghe Losa has a large central chamber surrounded by lesser chambers, and also spiral passage ways from the ground level that wind upward to the top of the structure. In other words, this is very much like a neolithic castle with spiral staircases inside.

Tagged: ItalySardiniaSardegnatraveltourismnuraghenuraghe losaprehistory

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11th July 2014

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Deep in the Sardinian countryside, some miles south of Sassari, is the beautifully placed Basilica della Santissima Trinità di Saccargia, a Pisan Romanesque church with its distinctive black and white stonework and Romanesque frescoes inside. The church was once part of a group of monastery buildings, the ruins of which can be seen next to the church, which is the only intact structure to survive. No town or village has grown up around the church, although a road passes nearby, so one sees this remarkable structure in its pristine setting, probably more or less indistinguishable from what it looked like nearly a thousand years ago.

Tagged: Basilica della Santissima Trinità di SaccargiaPisanromanesqueItalySardiniaSardegnatraveltourism

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10th July 2014

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Sardinian Basketry.—Sardinia has preserved into the historical period many lifeways continuous with the Neolithic past, including a tradition of intricately woven and decorated basketry. Just as islands can serve as refugia of relict species, the insularity and particularism of island life can serve as a refuge for relict industrial arts. The above pictures were taken of basketry on display in the museum in the fortress at Castelsardo

Tagged: SardiniaSardegnatraveltourismItalyparticularismbasketryCastelsardorefugiaindustrial arts

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10th July 2014

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Castelsardo: Day, Dusk, and Dark — Castelsardo is a town that has grown up around a fortress on a promontory on the north coast of Sardinia, a singularly picturesque setting, which, as you can see, is striking whether seen in the day, at dusk or after dark. The top picture is taken from the west, and the second two pictures are taken from the east.

Tagged: SardiniaSardegnaItalyCastelsardotraveltourism

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