The Power of Mechanical Thinking

Last year, I stumbled across a project by an Italian artist named Gianluca Gimini in which he asked people to draw what they think a bike looks like and then digitally rendered the result. It’s really neat and worth taking a look at; as a cyclist, several things jumped out at me immediately. The first was that most people don’t really seem to have any good conception of what a bike frame looks like, and the second is that they don’t actually know how bikes work. A lot of these drawings have the chain either attached in the entirely wrong place or depicted in a configuration that would almost certainly fail to work correctly.

People of course make this mistake not because they’re stupid but because they are unfamiliar with the details of bicycle mechanics. I suspect most people don’t ever think too much about how bicycles actually move, but hopefully if they do, they quickly realize that in order for the bike to actually move, the rotation of the pedals has to be coupled to the rotation of the wheels via the chain. The chain is really a key component, but many people left it off entirely or misunderstood its purpose.

Which is all to say: thinking mechanically is hard. Even for a simple system like a bike, it’s actually quite difficult, if only because it requires people to traverse a particular chain of potentially unfamiliar thought. It requires one to think carefully about what each component in the system is for: what function it fulfills and how it relates to the other components of the system. Most people are not used to working through a complex sequence of causal mechanisms in this way, but when the mechanisms in question power a bike, you get by more or less on instinct. It’s when the mechanisms become more complicated that the troubles begin.

Ask an ordinary person, even a reasonably educated one, to draw you even an approximate diagrammatic representation of how the federal government (or state, or local, doesn’t matter; I’m rolling with the federal example for now), and probably the modal reaction will be great confusion. Likely most people can figure out that the president is somewhere on top. There will also be a circle that represents the legislature (two circles for the two chambers if the respondent really paid attention in civics class) and those with some degree of political awareness will also include the Supreme Court, although the mechanism of its interaction with the other two branches will evade most. The vast federal bureaucracy that exists under the auspices of the executive branch will not be present; if any executive agency even appears, it won’t have any relation to any other part of the government. I can’t imagine any significant fraction of people would know anything about such minutia as House or Senate committees or the operations of the lower courts. Describing the interactions of these various actors with each other is also likely to be beyond almost all of them.

Again, this is not because people are stupid: it’s because the details of how the government operates are extremely boring and also vastly complicated. This is sometimes lost when one’s social network consists of politically informed people who genuinely find politics interesting. To most people, even people with advanced educations, policy discussions sound like that “wah wah” noise the adults in the Peanuts comics make.

Maybe none of this would matter so much if what was at stake was something as simple as voting. I’m of the opinion that parties are useful as information aggregators that abet the functioning of cognitive heuristics, so it’s not as though ignorance of the mechanics of government would render people unable to make voting decisions. But this ignorance does have serious consequences for political rhetoric and thought. Faced with a problem of overwhelming complexity, people do not take the time to think mechanically through disparate pieces of evidence and arrange them into a coherent whole. Rather, people lean on various cognitive heuristics and biases to arrive, via motivated reasoning, at conclusions in agreement with whatever positions they already hold. This phenomenon presents itself across the political spectrum; perhaps the most recent and salient example on the left was the insistence by many Sanders supporters that his candidacy had the potential to usher in a fundamental political revolution. As someone who supported Sanders and voted for him, and who is generally quite closely aligned with him on most issues, I found these declarations to be downright delusional. They could only have been made by people who had but the vaguest ideas of how an administrative behemoth like the United States federal government actually functioned. What was missing in these declarations was any causal process that would lead to the promised transformation, and the missing spaces were filled in with magical thinking.

If the left was delusional about the promises of a Sanders presidency, then the right is delusional about… everything else. The conspiracist swamp in which the American right baptizes itself daily is home to a menagerie of monsters, from Agenda 21 to the ZOG. Routine operations of government are seen not for what they are (mostly boring administrative paper-pushing with occasional attempts to accomplish something), but rather as sinister operations to undermine the country. The most anodyne processes are endowed with occult implications; that bike lane is just a precursor for the invasion of the UN blue helmets, and don’t let any egghead intellectual tell you different. The left’s fault may be excessive wishful thinking, but the right has entirely abandoned even the pretense of commitment to existence in a shared reality. You might be able to convince someone who holds a different view from you, but you can’t convince someone who denies the fundamental premises of (even approximately) verifiable truth and causal connection between events.

Richard Feynman once characterized science as “a way of trying not to fool yourself,” while acknowledging that “you are the easiest person to fool.” But fooling themselves is what a lot of people do when it comes to politics, over and over again. The mechanisms at play are incredibly complex and tracing their operations requires a great deal of cognitive effort, so by and large we don’t even attempt it. And when it comes to teaching people how to think their way through these sorts of problems, we don’t do that either. Much is made of the importance of “critical thinking” in education, but all too often those words are just that, unmoored from any actual critical approach to problems. We mostly throw a bunch of facts at people without explaining how those facts can be synthesized into a meaningful whole and move on. Of course the end result is, even among highly educated people, an inability to follow a chain of reasoning from end to end or understand how disparate aspects of a complex system connect to each other. And now here we are in the 21st century, with a world’s wealth of information (much of it accurate!) available to us on demand and no handle on how any of it hangs together. We starve in the midst of plenty because we don’t know how to digest the food.

Melian Dialogues

I don’t have anything terribly original to say on the topic of the current events in Baltimore. Anyone with two eyes, a few neurons to rub together, and a sense of history can understand for themselves that, whatever you think of riots as a political or moral phenomenon, it is impossible to detach those events from their manifestation as the reaction of a brutalized populace. Take a few minutes to read Ta-Nehisi Coates on this topic, then come back if you feel like it.

So now, a few words about the rhetoric of (non-)violence. Hardly anything in American political life is so reliable as the Grave Concerns of Very Serious People whenever more than three black people show up in the same spatiotemporal vicinity to express some degree of dissatisfaction with their treatment by the American police state; the ritual bemoaning of violence is metronomic in its regularity. Curiously, those same Very Serious People are somehow very quiet when it comes to the violence perpetrated upon those very same black people. Instead, we are subjected to the standard casual racism disguised as responsibility politics: that guy shouldn’t have run, this woman shouldn’t have spoken up, this other guy should have complied. Ad nauseam ad inifinitum.

There just isn’t any way of reconciling this double-standard that’s actually fair to the facts at hand, which is why any conversation on this topic turns into a prime example of goalpost-moving and evasion. “But destruction of property is still wrong!” “But you should still comply with police orders!” “But what about black-on-black crime?” Anything to avoid the unpleasant fact that police are enabled by the state to take lives with virtually no repercussions whatsoever, and that the lives taken are disproportionately black ones. It’s Thucydides meets Weber: the the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must, coupled with the state’s monopoly on violence and discretion in its distribution. No one familiar with the history of race in America ought to be surprised when this lethal mixture distributes that violence disproportionately onto African-Americans.

The Grave Concerns present an insurmountable double-bind. On the one hand, no one will speak for you if the police decide they like you better dead; on the other hand, no public expressions of outrage are allowed, lest you be labeled “violent.” Usually at this stage the Very Serious People suggest that the way to reform is through the voting booth, which only serves to remind everyone that none of these Very Serious People have ever lived as members of a politically disempowered community. The VSP’s tend to have a romantic notion of that decidedly un-romantic Weberian formulation, “the strong and slow boring of hard boards,” mostly because it allows an escape into cliche rather than obligating someone to actually do something, the way a real moral outrage would. After all, it’s not them who will have to do the actual boring, it’s other people, and for other people, especially other black people, justice can wait. Forever, if need be. Never mind that not being subjected to the arbitrary lethal power of the state manifested in its police force is one of those pretty basic things that one would think wouldn’t require “reform” to make happen.

This vicious circle will continue until it becomes an accepted fact in American politics that black lives are worth as much as white ones, and that a system of racial terror imposed on black communities is morally untenable. As long as that system persists, we’ll see more Baltimores for the simple reason that public protests are the only visible way that black communities have to protest against this. All the pearl-clutching over destroyed property and violence inappropriately issuing from rather than being directed at black people are just ways of avoiding that basic realization.

Ruminations on Science

The text below was modified slightly from a comment I left over at Crooked Timber. After writing it, I thought it held up ok as a separate piece of writing, divorced from the comment thread, so I’m just posting it here with minimal alterations:

Science is hard. It’s just really difficult to even achieve a small amount of mastery in an area of your own alleged expertise. There’s just so much of it, and so much more appearing every day. There are varying responses to this problem. One response is to just write off any results that disagree with conclusions that one has already reached by other means. Another is to set up institutions in which legitimate queries after truth can actually be carried out and debated. That’s a great meta-solution, in my view, but unsurprisingly it comes with its own meta-problems. Now you’ve got this whole other layer of professional scientists that, to the untutored observer, appear interposed priestlike between you and the truth. As with any sufficiently complex (i.e. involving more than 5 people) institutions, mystification sets in. If you’re already predetermined to disregard what the scientists are saying in the first place, what is in reality an imperfect mechanism for adjudicating truth claims begins looking like a conspiracy to suppress your great uncle’s naturopathic cure for cancer. And the thing about conspiracies is that they can never be disproven; any evidence counter to the conspiracist conclusion is merely additional proof that those who offer the evidence are in on the conspiracy.

In the right (wrong) sorts of circumstances, this problem becomes a horrible vicious circle. It can only be resolved by taking a step back and trying to understand science as a human institution and scientists as human practitioners; in other words, trying to figure out what scientists are doing and why. That is also very hard, especially if you come from outside a scientific discipline, because you’ll be entering into discussions in which you lack the requisite terminology for understanding all the little details. That’s why scientific communication is a two-way street: if the average person holds some responsibility for trying to understand how science gets done, then scientists have commensurate responsibility to explain that process in a way that’s understandable. Sadly, scientists have often failed at this task; those who can do it well, like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and P.Z. Myers, are worth their weight in gold because they’re quite rare.

The problem with people like global warming deniers and the anti-vax crowd is that everything they do undermines these institutions. If you only care about being right instead of getting it right (parsing the distinction is left as an exercise for the reader), then all this stuff like peer review and independent verification is just so much cruft that you can discard when it runs up against something you want badly to be true. The danger of that is that sooner or later you’ll cut down the very tree you sit in, as the Russian expression goes, and when you actually require those mechanisms and institutions to function properly because they impact your own life, they won’t.

Five Years in the Future

Oh gosh, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? My deepest apologies, sports fans. You know how life is, always getting in the way. Perhaps this will spur a production in verbal output but it’s just as likely that it’ll be a once-per-year salvo. Don’t get used to anything nice, my mother always told me.

Anyway, this too-prolix production has been made possible by a friend soliciting my input on the following article. That shit is long, so take a good thirty minutes out of your day if you plan to read it all, and then take another thirty to read this response, which I know you’re going to do because you love me that much.

I’ll save you some of the trouble by putting my thesis front and center so you can decide whether or not you want to continue reading or leave an angry comment: I think the linked piece is premised on some really flimsy assumptions and glosses over some serious problems, both empirical and logical, in its desire to attain its final destination. This is, sadly, par for the course in popular writing about AI; even very clever people often write very stupid things on this topic. There’s a lot of magical thinking going on in this particular corner of the Internet; much of it, I think, can be accounted for by a desire to believe in a bright new future about to dawn, coupled with a complete lack of consequences for being wrong about your predictions. That said, let’s get to the meat.

There are three basic problems with Tim Urban’s piece, and I’ll try and tackle all three of them. The first is that it relies throughout on entirely speculative and unjustified projections generated by noted “futurist” (here I would say, rather, charlatan, or perhaps huckster) Ray Kurzweil; these projections are the purest fantasy premised on selective interpretations of sparsely available data and once their validity is undermined, the rest of the thesis collapses pretty quickly. The second problem is that Urban repeatedly makes wild leaps of logic and inference to arrive at his favored result. Third, Urban repeatedly mischaracterizes or misunderstands the state of the science, and at one point even proposes a known mathematical and physical impossibility. There’s a sequel to Urban’s piece too, but I’ve only got it in me to tackle this one.

Conjectures and Refutations

Let me start with what’s easily the most objectionable part of Urban’s piece: the charts. Now, I realize that the charts are meant to be illustrative rather than precise scientific depictions of reality, but for all that they are still misleading. Let’s set aside for the moment the inherent difficulty of defining what exactly constitutes “human progress” and note that we don’t really have a good way of determining where we stand on that little plot even granting that such a plot could be made. Urban hints at this problem with his second “chart” (I guess I should really refer to them as “graphics” since they are not really charts in any meaningful sense), but then the problem basically disappears in favor of a fairly absurd thought experiment involving a time traveler from the 1750s. My general stance is that in all but the most circumscribed of cases, thought experiments are thoroughly useless, and I’d say that holds here. We just don’t know how a hypothetical time traveler retrieved from 250 years ago would react to modern society, and any extrapolation based on that idea should be suspect from the get-go. Yes, the technological changes from 1750 to today are quite extreme, perhaps more extreme than the changes from 1500 to 1750, to use Urban’s timeline. But they’re actually not so extreme that they’d be incomprehensible to an educated person from that time. For example, to boil our communication technology down to the basics, the Internet, cell phones, etc. are just uses of electrical signals to communicate information. Once you explain the encoding process at a high level to someone familiar with the basics of electricity (say, Ben Franklin), you’re not that far off from explicating the principles on which the whole thing is based, the rest being details. Consider further that in 1750 we are a scant 75 years away from Michael Faraday, and 100 years away from James Clerk Maxwell, the latter of whom would understand immediately what you’re talking about.

We can play this game with other advances of modern science, all of which had some precursors in the 1750s (combustion engines, the germ theory of disease, etc.). Our hypothetical educated time traveler might not be terribly shocked to learn that we’ve done a good job of reducing mortality through immunizations, or that we’ve achieved heavier-than-air flight. I doubt that however surprised they are it would be to the extent that they would die. The whole “Die Progress Unit” is, again, a tongue-in-cheek construct from Urban, meant to be illustrative, but rhetorically it functions to cloak all kinds of assumptions about how people would or would not react. It disguises a serious conceptual and empirical problem (just how do we define and measure things like “rates of progress”) behind a very glib imaginary scenario that is both not meant to be taken seriously and function as justification for the line of thinking that Urban pursues later in the piece.

The idea that ties this first part together is Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Those who know me won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think much of Kurzweil or his laws. I think Kurzweil is one part competent engineer and nine parts charlatan, and that most of his ideas are garbage amplified by money. The “Law” of accelerating returns isn’t any such thing, certainly not in the simplistic way presented in Urban’s piece, and relying on it as if it were some sort of proven theorem is a terrible mistake. A full explanation of the problems with the Kurzweilian thesis will have to wait for another time, but I’ll sketch one of the biggest objections below. Arguendo I will grant an assumption that in my view is mostly unjustified, which is that the y-axis on those graphics can even be constructed in a meaningful way.

A very basic problem with accelerating returns is that it very much depends on what angle you look at it from. To give a concrete example, if you were a particle physicist in the 1950s, you could pretty much fall ass-backwards into a Nobel Prize if you managed to scrape together enough equipment to build yourself a modest accelerator capable of finding another meson. But then a funny thing happened, which is that ever incremental advance over the gathering of low-hanging fruit consumed disproportionately more energy. Unsurprisingly, the marginal returns on increased energy diminished greatly; the current most powerful accelerator in the world (the LHC at CERN) has beam energies that I believe will max out at somewhere around 7 TeV, give or take a few GeV. That’s one order of magnitude more powerful than the second-most powerful accelerator (the RHIC at Brookhaven), and it’s not unrealistic to believe that the discovery of any substantial new physics will require an accelerator another order of magnitude more powerful. In other words, the easy stuff is relatively easy and the hard stuff is disproportionately hard. Of course this doesn’t mean that all technologies necessarily follow this pattern, but note that what we’re running up against here is not a technological limit per se, but rather a fundamental physical limit: the increased energy scale just is where the good stuff lies. Likewise, there exist other real physical limits on the kind of stuff we can do. You can only make transistors so small until quantum effects kick in; you can only consume so much energy before thermodynamics dictates that you must cook yourself.

The astute reader will note that this pattern matches quite well (at least, phenomenologically speaking) the logistic S-curve that Urban draw in one of his graphics. But what’s really happening there? What Urban has done is to simply connect a bunch of S-curves and overlaid them on an exponential, declaring (via Kurzweil) that this is how technology advances. But does technology really advance this way? I can’t find any concrete argument that it does, just a lot of hand-waving about plateaus and explosions. What’s more, the implicit assumption lurking in the construction of this plot is that when one technology plays itself out, we will somehow be able to jump ship to another method. There is historical precedent for this assumption, especially in the energy sector: we started off by burning wood, and now we’re generating energy (at least potentially) from nuclear reactions and sunlight. All very nice, until you realize that the methods of energy generation that are practical to achieve on Earth are likely completely played out. We have fission, fusion, and solar, and that’s about it for the new stuff. Not because we aren’t sufficiently “clever” but because underlying energy generation is a series of real physical processes that we don’t get to choose. There may not be another accessible S-curve that you we can jump to.

Maybe other areas of science behave in this way and maybe they don’t; it’s hard to know for sure. But admitting ignorance in the face of incomplete data is a virtue, not a sin; we can’t be justified in assuming that we’ll be able to go on indefinitely appending S-curves to each other. At best, even if the S-curve is “real,” what we’re actually dealing with is an entire landscape of such curves, arranged in ways we don’t really understand. As such, predictions about the rate of technological increase are based on very little beyond extrapolating various conveniently-arranged plots; it’s just that instead of extrapolating linearly, Kurzweil (and Urban following after him) does so exponentially. Well, you can draw lines through any set of data that you like, but it doesn’t mean you actually understand anything about that data unless you understand the nature of the processes that give rise to it.

You can look at the just-so story of the S-curve and the exponential (also the title of a children’s book I’m working on) as a story about strategy and metastrategy. In other words, each S-curve technology is a strategy, and the metastrategy is that when one strategy fails we develop another to take its place. But of course this itself assumes that the metastrategy will remain valid indefinitely; what if it doesn’t? Hitting an upper or lower physical limit is an example of a real barrier that is likely not circumventable through “paradigm shifts” because there’s a real universe that dictates what is and isn’t possible. Kurzweil prefers to ignore things like this because they throw his very confident pronouncements into doubt, but if we’re actually trying to formulate at least a toy scientific theory of progress, we can’t discount these scenarios.

1. p → q;
2. r
3. therefore, q

Since Kurzweil’s conjectures (I won’t dignify them with the word “theory”) don’t actually generate any useful predictions, it’s impossible to test them in any real sense of the word. I hope I’ve done enough work above to persuade the reader that these projections are nothing more than fantasy predicated on the fallacious notion that the metastrategy of moving to new technologies is going to work forever. As though it weren’t already bad enough to rely on these projections as if they were proven facts, Urban repeatedly mangles logic in his desire to get where he’s going. For example, at one point, he writes:

So while nahhhhh might feel right as you read this post, it’s probably actually [sic] wrong. The fact is, if we’re being truly logical and expecting historical patterns to continue, we should conclude that much, much, much more should change in the coming decades than we intuitively expect.

It’s hard to see why the skeptics are the ones who are “probably actually wrong” and not Urban and Kurzweil. If we’re being “truly logical” then, I’d argue, we aren’t making unjustified assumptions about what the future will look like based on extrapolating current non-linear trends, especially when we know that some of those extrapolations run up against basic thermodynamics.

That self-assured gem comes just after Urban commits an even grosser offense against reason. This:

And yes, no one in the past has not died. But no one flew airplanes before airplanes were invented either.

is not an argument. In the words of Wolfgang Pauli, it isn’t even wrong. This is a sequence of words that means literally nothing and no sensible conclusion can be drawn from it. To write this and to reason from such premises is to do violence to the very notion of logic that you’re trying to defend.

The entire series contains these kinds of logical gaps that are basically filled in by wishful thinking. Scales, trends, and entities are repeatedly postulated, then without any particular justification or reasoning various attributes are assigned to them. We don’t have the faintest idea of what an artificial general intelligence or super-intelligence might look like, but Urban (via Kurzweil) repeatedly gives it whatever form will make his article most sensational. If for some reason the argument requires an entity capable of things incomprehensible to human thought, that capability is magicked in wherever necessary.

The State of the Art

Urban’s taxonomy of “AI” is likewise flawed. There are not, actually, three kinds of AI; depending on how you define it, there may not even be one kind of AI. What we really have at the moment are a number of specialized algorithms that operate on relatively narrowly specified domains. Whether or not that represents any kind of “intelligence” is a debatable question; pace John McCarthy, it’s not clear that any system thus far realized in computational algorithms has any intelligence whatsoever. AGI is, of course, the ostensible goal of AI research generally speaking, but beyond general characteristics such as those outlined by Allen Newell, it’s hard to say what an AGI would actually look like. Personally, I suspect that it’s the sort of thing we’d recognize when we saw it, Turing-test-like, but pinning down any formal criteria for what AGI might be has so far been effectively impossible. Whether something like the ASI that Urban describes can even plausibly exist is of course the very thing in doubt; it will not surprise you, if you have not read all the way through part 2, that having postulated ASI in part 1, Urban immediately goes on to attribute various characteristics to it as though he, or anyone else, could possibly know what those characteristics might be.

I want to jump ahead for a moment and highlight one spectacularly dumb thing that Urban says at the end of his piece that I think really puts the whole thing in perspective:

If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time—everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us.

This scenario impossible. Not only does it violate everything we know about uncertainty principles, but it also effectively implies a being with infinite computational power; this is because even if atoms were classical particles, controlling the position of every atom logically entails running forward in time a simulation of the trajectories of those atoms to infinite precision, a feat that is impossible in a finite universe. Not only that, but the slightest error in initial conditions will accumulate exponentially (here, the exponential stuff is actually mathematically valid), so that e.g. improving your forecast horizon by a factor of 10 requires a factor of 100 increase in computational power and so on.

This might seem like an awfully serious takedown of an exaggerated rhetorical point, but it’s important because it demonstrates how little Urban knows, or worries, about the actual science at stake. For example, he routinely conflates raw computational power with the capabilities of actual mammalian brains:

So the world’s $1,000 computers are now beating the mouse brain and they’re at about a thousandth of human level.

But of course this is nonsense. We are not “beating” the mouse brain in any substantive sense, we merely have machines that do a number of calculations per second that is comparable to a number that we imagine the mouse brain is also doing. About the best we’ve been able to do is to mock up a network of virtual point neurons that kind of resembles a slice of the mouse brain, maybe, if you squint from far away, and run it for a few seconds. Which is a pretty impressive technical achievement, but saying that we’ve “beaten the mouse brain” is wildly misleading. “Affordable, widespread AGI-caliber hardware in ten years,” is positively fantastical even under the most favorable Moore’s Law assumptions.

Of course, even with that kind of hardware, AGI is not guaranteed; it takes architecture as much as computational power to get to intelligence. Urban recognizes this, but his proposed “solutions” to this problem again betray as misunderstanding of both the state of science and our capabilities. For example, his “emulate the brain” solution is basically bog-standard connectionism. Not that connectionism is bad or hasn’t produced some pretty interesting results, but neuroscientists have known for a long time now that the integrate-and-fire point neuron of connectionist models is a very, very, very loose abstraction that doesn’t come close to capturing all the complexities of what happens in the brain. As this paper on “the neuron doctrine” (PDF) makes clear, the actual biology of neural interaction is fiendishly complicated, and the simple “fire together-wire together” formalism is a grossly inadequate (if also usefully tractable) simplification. Likewise, the “whole brain simulation” story fails to take into account real biological complexities of faithfully simulating neuronal interactions. Urban links to an article which claims that whole-brain emulation of C. elegans has been achieved, but while the work done by the OpenWorm folks is certainly impressive, it’s still a deeply simplified model. It’s hard from the video to gauge how closely the robot-worm’s behavior matches the real worm’s behavior; it’s likely that, at least, it exhibits some types of behaviors that the worm also exhibits, but I doubt that even its creators would claim ecological validity for their mode. At the very best, it’s a proof of principle regarding how one might go about doing something like this in the future, and, keep in mind, that this is a 300-neuron creature whose connectome is entirely known.

Nor are genetic algorithms likely to do the trick. Overall, the track record of genetic algorithms in actually producing useful results is decidedly mixed. In a recent talk I went to, Christos Papadimitriou, a pretty smart guy, flat out claimed that “genetic algorithms don’t work.” (PDF, page 18). I do not possess sufficient expertise to judge the truth of this statement, but I think the probability that genetic algorithms will provide the solution is low. It does not help that we “know” what we’re aiming for; in truth we have no idea what we’re optimizing for, and our end-goal is something of the “we know it when we see it” variety, which isn’t something that lends itself terribly well to a targeted search. Evolution, unlike humans, optimized for certain sorts of local fitness maxima (to put it very, very simply), and wound up producing something that couldn’t possibly have been targeted for in such an explicit way.

All of this is to say that knowing the connectome and having some computing power at your disposal is a necessary but not sufficient condition for replicating even simple organismic functionality. Understanding how to go from even a complete map of the human brain to a model of how that brain produces intelligence is not a simple mapping, nor is it just a matter of how many gigaflops you can execute. You have to have the right theory or your computational power isn’t worth that much. A huge problem that one hits on when speaking with actual neuroscientists is that there’s really a dearth of theoretical machinery out there that even begins to accurately represent intelligence as a whole, and it isn’t for lack of trying.

The concluding discussion of what an AI might look like in relation to humans is hopelessly muddled. We barely have any coherent notion of how to quantify existing human intelligence, much less a possible artificial one. There’s no particular reason to think that intelligence follows some kind of linear scale, or that “170,000 more intelligent than a human,” is any sort of meaningful statement, rather than a number thrown out into the conversation without any context.

The problem with the entire conversation surrounding AI is that it’s almost entirely divorced from the realities of both neuroscience and computer science. The boosterism that emanates from places like the Singularity Institute and from people like Kurzweil and his epigones is hardly anything more than science fiction. Their projections are mostly obtained by drawing straight lines through some judiciously-selected data, and their conjectures about what may or may not be possible are mostly based on wishful thinking. It’s disappointing that Urban’s three weeks of research have produced a piece that reads like an SI press release, rather than any sort of sophisticated discussion of either the current state of the AI field or the tendencious and faulty logic driving  the hype.


None of this is to say that we should be pessimists about the possibility of artificial intelligence. As a materialist, I don’t believe that humans are somehow imbued with any special metaphysical status that is barred to machines. I hold out hope that some day we will, through diligent research into the structure of existing brains, human and otherwise, unravel the mystery of intelligence. But holding out hope is one thing; selling it as a foregone conclusion is quite another. Concocting bizarre stories about superintelligent machines capable of manipulating individual atoms through, apparently, the sheer power of will, is just fabulism. Perhaps no more succinct and accurate summary of this attitude has ever been formulated than that written by John Campbell of Pictures for Sad Children fame:

it’s flying car bullshit: surely the world will conform to our speculative fiction, surely we’re the ones who will get to live in the future. it gives spiritual significance to technology developed primarily for entertainment or warfare, and gives nerds something to obsess over that isn’t the crushing vacuousness of their lives

Maybe that’s a bit ungenerous, but I find that it’s largely true. Obsession about AI futures is not even a first world problem as much as a problem for a world that has never existed and might never exist. It’s like worrying about how you’ll interact with the aliens that you’re going to find on the other side of the wormhole before you even know how to get out of the solar system without it taking decades.

Getting it mostly right and completely wrong

Lots of people seem to either like or hate Chuck Klosterman. As someone who never particularly formed any opinions regarding the guy, I’m happy to continue in my unwavering agnosticism towards his writing. But I am interested in a particular piece he wrote this week for Grantland, reviewing Lulu, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration based, apparently, on the Wedekind play of the same name.

Let that sink in for a minute. Lou Reed, who is old as dirt, and Metallica, who are only slightly younger and haven’t done anything of significance in a decade, have combined forces to put out an album which takes its theme from a play about the sexual mores of Wilhelmine Germany. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG WITH THIS SCENARIO?!

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “everything.” From Klosterman’s extremely funny review, I gather that the result is about as unpalatable as one could possibly expect. Klosterman spends a lot of time on the awfulness of Lulu, which seems totally appropriate, but it’s towards the end that his article goes off the rails and into some really problematic territory (how you like them mixed metaphors?).

See, the problem for Klosterman is that it seems to be causing him to re-evaluate his stand towards the collapse of the record industry (or if it’s not the catalyst, it at least seems to be a contributing factor). Klosterman’s allegation is that if we still lived in the 1992 where the record labels ran the show, something like Lulu would never exist. Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether this is even true; I would argue that the music industry has made its share of terrible decisions throughout its existence, and the only reason Klosterman thinks this is that he’s suffering from a common sort of cognitive bias where he only remembers the good stuff from the 90s. In the penultimate paragraph, Klosterman praises the concept, writing that “I’m glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I’m always a fan of bad ideas.” He concludes:

The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

Klosterman doesn’t come out and say it outright, but the implication of his last two paragraphs is that he thinks that this is a problem; that the actual realization of Lulu, while based on an admirable concept, is a mistake. With this, I beg to differ.

It has been my fervent belief for many years now that the most interesting of our cultural debris is the weird stuff. And not just the weird stuff, but the stuff that’s so divorced from any plausible standard of aesthetic quality that one struggles to comprehend how it even came to be. If I asked you to imagine Lulu, you couldn’t do it; you would either wind up with some forced Pynchonesque, or something far more mundane than actually happened. The fact that Lulu exists at all, the fact that we live in an environment which makes it possible, is, to me anyway, extremely important. Not because I would actually listen to Lulu (because I’m lazy enough as it is, and I refuse to expend cognitive effort to merely enjoy something ironically) but because its existence means that even in the stodgiest, most regulated corners of the cultural space, there exists an opportunity to do something mind-bogglingly stupid. And mind-boggling stupidity, especially produced in this way, is hilarious.

Failure is as much of an art as success, although typically success is achieved by consciously creating something of value, whereas artistic failure is something generally lucked into: either by dint of overreaching on the basis of your previous achievements (e.g. Lulu) or by being hilariously awful (e.g. Plan 9 From Outer Space, although honestly I never found it to be nearly as cringe-inducing as its defenders claim). The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a hardwood masterpiece made flesh, a team that won an astounding 72 games; the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets were a hilarious embarrasment to the league, winning a mere 12. Sure, you’d rather watch the Jordan Bulls play (assuming you’re a neutral) but as a narrative, isn’t the Nets’ despair infinitely more compelling? After all, you already know a team like the Bulls is destined for a ring, but the Nets, right up until the end of the season, had the potential for badness of historical proportions (that they fell just short of that is disappointing in its own right, although they did set the historical mark for worst start to the season with 19 straight losses). I cared nothing for the Nets, but couldn’t help checking their results every morning just to see if the lows they’d fallen to would go even lower (further bizzaritude: of the three wins that kept New Jersey from tying for the worst-ever season, one was a win on the road against eventual finalists the Boston Celtics, and two more came in double-overtime wins against the Bulls and the Miami Heat, both playoff teams). Were not the historically abominable Detroit Lions far more interesting than if they’d gone 4-12? Of course they were, and you know it.

The same thing holds for artistic endeavors as much as athletic ones (though in truth the lines between the two are blurry). Is not the existence of a film such as Howard the Duck irrefutable proof of the non-existence of God? In what kind of just world would it be possible for the profoundly schizophrenic Hudson Hawk (which seems to begin as a relatively unremarkable action/heist film, and yet goes on to contain a scene in which a little girl in a museum is told “You’re a disgrace to your country!” in a scene which has only the remotest contextual relevance to the plot) to exist? Only in a world in which it was possible for someone to take Bruce Willis seriously as a screenwriter.

These various failures are like a sort of Ozymandias lining our cultural highways: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. They are, by and large, fascinating examples of people trying out completely preposterous, downright stupid ideas, and winding up with colossal failure that demands appreciation on an aesthetic level. Studied competence is a quality we demand from doctors and civil servants; our artistic products, to be interesting, should be either transcendentally successful, or implausibly horrid. Edgar Bulwer-Lytton (he of the much-and-unjustly-malgined “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, an opening sentence about as unremarkable as they get), towards the end of his life, concocted an absurd proto-science-fiction story about a subterranean race that thrived on a mysterious form of energy. The novel apparently caused a minor mania, becoming an obsession of Theosophists and people who thought Atlantis was real, as it was taken as a veridical description of reality; can anything remotely similarly fascinating be said about one of Hardy’s ponderous chronicles of English peasant life or the interminably dull regional fiction of a Sarah Orne Jewett? Sure, Bulwer-Lytton is considered to have failed aesthetically, but he failed in such a spectacular fashion that you can’t help but admire the audacity.

The best of our aesthetic artifacts share this kind of demented energy with the worst; they contain sparks (or even full-blown fires) of something crazy, something you won’t see if all you shoot for is competence. Metallica producing a competent, or even relatively good (say, on par with the Black Album) record would not arouse the slightest curiosity, but Metallica teaming up with Lou Reed to adapt Wedekind is a fascinating, not even but especially since it’s so disastrous. Klosterman is wrong to be filled with (admittedly limited) nostalgia for the world of record label control; the fact that the destruction of that world allowed something like Lulu to be created is direct evidence that we’re better off without it.

I am shocked, shocked to find that libertarians are misogynistic assholes!

I was going to write something a little more serious today but fuck it, it’s Friday and I’ve been engaged in a really stupid Facebook argument for the last day or so that’s made me pretty pissed off. So here we go.

If you are a breathing human being who has any interest in politics, you probably know who Elizabeth Warren is; I don’t need to sing her accolades because she’s awesome and she’s running against Scott Brown for a seat in the Senate from Massachussetts in the 2012 election. So here’s Warren, campaigning, and in the course of doing so gives what in saner times would have been a completely uncontroversial defense of the democratic social contract:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Keep in mind that this is a campaign stump speech given to supporters and not an academic treatise explaining why the social contract is justified (although I have no doubt that Warren could produce one of those too, given the time and inclination). It’s a statement of a sort of basic reciprocity that was once a fundamental pillar of civic life in this country, namely, that when you benefit (disproportionately, one might add) from the existence of public goods, it is incumbent on you to share in the upkeep of those goods. That’s how things work in countries that haven’t lost their fucking minds.

Now of course libertarians and Republicans (two groups which for political purposes are nearly identical in American political life; if you want to talk to me about No True Libertarians, kindly fuck right off) have worked themselves up into a lather over this because being forced to pay taxes is a whisker’s breadth short of being castrated and thrown in a Soviet gulag (i.e. because they are idiots). And while one could make (incorrect but at least) consistent arguments against Warren’s assertion, that simply won’t do for some people because that’s hard and requires thinking and it’s just easier all around to call Warren an uppity bitch and feel very smug about yourself.

And of course that’s pretty much what happens. There’s a picture floating around the web in which a photograph of Warren speaking (it’s a close-up photo that basically has nothing but her face and hands in it) has been image-macro’d (is that a word? is now!) to contain the following text:

There is no woman in this country who got hot on her own. You have a really nice ass and a great boob job? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You got to the gym on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired a plastic surgeon the rest of us paid to educate. You’re safe from hotter, foreign women because of INS agents and boarder [sic] security the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that Colombian or Polish women would come and steal your boyfriend. Now look. You work out and wear nice makeup and look fantastic – good for you. A big chunk of the sex you have should be with people you choose. But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a chunk of the sex you have had and have that sex with people the government chooses.

Contemplate for a second, if you will, the sheer level of assholitude and general hatred of women that is required to write something like this.

It doesn’t take a Socrates to see why this doesn’t hold up analogically, and we’ll get to that, later. For now, I just want to point out how horribly misogynistic this is for anyone who is too dumb to read and understand the meanings of words. The first major red flag here is at word #4; it’s quite telling that in this example, it’s the hot woman who somehow owes sex to others (presumably men, though that’s a tacit assumption). This is of course entirely in line with the male libertarian ethos of entitlement, whether it be to money or to sex (but especially sex). Of course it would never occur to a self-declared Randian paragon of rationality that the reason women don’t want to fuck him is because he tends to treat them like objects and not like people (as one might surmise from seeing someone share this image on Facebook, say). The reference to boob jobs and a great ass further reinforces this point: women are eye candy and must conform to pornified male standards of beauty to be desirable (the implicit reading being: shut up bitch, we’ll judge your social worth by whether you’re hot or not). Also interesting is the implication that somehow the INS is responsible for keeping hot foreign women out of the country because otherwise all you oh-so-smart American women would be replaced by the submissive foreigners of our masturbatory fantasies who would never do such un-womanly things as engage you in political debate or run for public office or refuse to have sex with you because you’re a jerk; this of course is a common trope one finds among so-called men’s rights advocates, a group that tends to intersect fairly heavily with libertarians and Republicans. And of course the most egregious part of the whole thing being that if you’re hot, you owe people sex, because paying taxes, which people do all over the civilized world, is the same as being raped (because that’s what it means when you’re forced to have sex with people you don’t want to have sex with, you guys).

Now of course, upon being called out on their misogynistic behavior, people who share this image start moving goalposts. It’s all just a joke! It’s an analogy to what Warren is saying about taxes! It’s an argument about “legitimate interests” that “should not be arbitrarily taken away” (that one is something that was actually written!). These are all abusrd and easily dismissable, the last two first: Warren has never argued to the best of my knowledge that arbitrary confiscation of property was an unalloyed good. Taxes are not, in fact, arbitrary confiscation; one can reasonably debate what level of taxes we should be paying (or even whether we should be paying them at all) but that’s a debate that’s had by laying your philosophical assumptions on the table and making the actual argument, not by twisting the original into a stupid non-analogy about government allocating sex. Yes, of course you have legitimate interests in property, and in your bodily autonomy. Thankfully, most reasonable people realize that your interest in not being raped is a lot stronger than your interest in not paying taxes (or really, pretty much any other material property interest). On these grounds, the analogic argument fails entirely.

As for the joke, well: if you find this funny, then you find degrading women funny, and that makes you a misogynistic asshole. Yeah, chances are you don’t go around actively beating or raping women, but you’re still an asshole because you’re perpetuating the attitude that bitches ain’t shit, that women’s social worth is to be judged by the size of their tits, and that equating taxes and rape constitutes a valid political argument. When pointed to these facts, the response is always “waaaaah you called me a mean name!” Oh, you don’t want to be called mean names? Then don’t do mean things, you ass! There’s nothing about this image that in any way refutes any point that Warren makes and its distribution is nothing more than an attempt to put a woman in her place by means of sexist remarks and implications.

ADDENDUM: Secondary to the above is the fact that the analogy fails even if you accept its basic premises. Consider this: Ryan Gosling is hot (I would have used Diego Forlan as my example but not enough people will know who that is; Diego, if you ever read this, you know how to find me). First, it doesn’t follow from this fact that Gosling has in any way acquired his hotness by means of any contribution from me or from anyone else. It’s much more probable that Gosling has simply won the genetic lottery and that his favorable genes combined with a bit of exercise (or possibly even without it) make his career possible (I guess he also knows how to act, but whatever, that’s not the point). But ok, let’s accept the fact that we as a society have made some contribution to Gosling’s hotness; we have certainly made a contribution to his overall success because not only did he drive to the gym on public roads, but he also went to work on public roads and there was a whole infrastructure in place that made his career possible. The logical end-point of this argument is not that Ryan Gosling owes you or me sex, any more than my being educated in public schools obligates me to become a school teacher; the logical end-point is that we as a society, having made Gosling’s success possible, have a legitimate interest in reclaiming the fruits of that success in the form of taxes. So even given the basic assumptions of the “argument” we still wind up with the conclusion that what we’re really after is not fucking Ryan Gosling (well, not as a society anyway) but rather the resources (i.e. taxes) that make it possible to maintain the public infrastructure.

Lust for Life

I don’t know very much about the Troy Davis case. Even given that I’m someone with a tentacle in almost every corner of the internet, it somehow passed me by; these things happen. I have read a number of things both from official news sources and from people whose judgment I trust which allege that the convictions against Davis were based on the flimsiest of evidences, now discredited; I see no reason not to believe these allegations, given my general skepticism towards pretty much any criminal allegations made by agents of the state. The standard is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and from what I can tell that standard wasn’t met. Of course, on the morning of this writing, it doesn’t matter anymore for Davis, who was executed in Georgia last night. But maybe it might matter to others in the future.

There are two tragedies when a death penalty is enacted, and the most obvious and direct one is the possibility (or, indeed, sometimes certainty) that an innocent individual has been irrevocably deleted from society. I take it for granted that executing an innocent person is never acceptable, and have no interest in deploying arguments designed to convince anyone of this. Anything else turns the concept of justice into an absurdity. But the second tragedy of the death penalty, which operates even when it’s exercised on the obviously guilty, is the tragedy of what we become as a society when we condone (or worse, demand) the imposition of the ultimate sanction by the state.

There is a good dialogue on the death penalty between Justin Smith and Gerald Dworkin here. One of the notable features of this dialogue is the distinction between Dworkin’s relatively abstract philosophizing and Smith’s repeated appeals to the idea that the death penalty is incompatible with our stated societal goal of not being cruel. I’m not knocking Dworkin here, but I think it should be obvious where my sympathies lie. We have a certain notion of ourselves as a society capable of mercy, and not only that, but incapable of (or at least strongly averse to) cruelty (this tendency is so strong that even in circumstances where the treatment is obviously cruel, c.f. waterboarding, Bradley Manning’s confinement conditions, etc., the overwhelming initial reaction by defenders of that treatment is not to accept the cruelty as necessary but to deny that it’s cruel at all). And I side with Smith when he says that we can’t reasonably sustain those notions when we allow ourselves to employ the mechanism of the state to take the life of another human being, guilty or not.

Because in the end, I believe that a necessary condition of being a moral society is that we be a society that rejects cruelty and bloodlust, even for the worst among us. And when we allow ourselves to be ruled by that bloodlust, we take one step down the road that leads to a descent into barbarism.


Civility: a mug’s game

If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the Synthese brouhaha, you can do so here. There’s a lot of material flying around, including open letters from the special issue editors, various unsatisfactory replies from the actual Synthese editors, and an elaborate “Who? Me?” act from Francis Beckwith. The details are sufficiently covered at Evolving Thoughts and Leiter Reports, so I’m not going to bother to repeat them here. What I’m interested in is the rhetorical maneuvers underlying this so-called scandal. Keep in mind that the whole thing got off the ground with a prefatory note by the Synthese editors saying that they thought the essays in the special issue, particularly that of Barbara Forrest, were… how to put it… less than generous to the ID position? Perhaps even… uncivil?!

Naturally this represents and undermining of the very purpose of the special issue. I haven’t actually read the original papers by Forrest and others, but what I would argue is that even if the editors’ preface was entirely accurate and the essays were in fact “uncivil,” (having read other things by Forrest, I know that she pull no punches against bad philosophy; I assume that this was in fact the point of contention), well, they should have been. Because ID proponents and creationists do not deserve civility. They are liars and frauds who graft disparate pieces of math, physics, and philosophy (all misapplied, natch) in the service of a religious agenda. The ID crowd wants to have it both ways, claiming to be a scienfitic undertaking while blatantly identifying with Christian theology. The entire structure of ID advocacy is a ploy to put a “scientific” face on religious promotion; and of course, ID advocates acting “outside” of their official ID affiliations have absolutely no problem calling atheists and secular humanists immoral or worse. But dare to breathe an unkind word in their direction, and the double standard kicks in. How dare you accuse them of the things they openly advocate! How dare you suggest their so-called science is a fraud and a sham! Why, that kind of evidence-based judgment is terribly uncivil, dontcha know!

These are not people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. They are, at the very best, cranks; at the very worst, they are active participants in the subversion of secular ideals to religious orthodoxy. They cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, and they must be called out at every possible opportunity. And most importantly, their false civility cannot be allowed to silence debate. The tactic of accusing your opponents of being uncivil has a long history of being used to marginalize voices in sensitive debates and it cannot be allowed to advance any farther, especially not in cases of scientific questions.

You know what’s uncivil? It’s when you demand all the emails from a professor’s university account because you don’t like his evisceration of your historical ignorance. It’s when you tell your followers to go protest outside of a kid’s house because his family was a poster case for what happens when you lose your health insurance. It’s when you launch frivolous lawsuits against actual scientists who show demonstrate that your “alternative medicines” are full of shit. It’s when you aim your gun at the only doctor in the entire state who can provide late-term abortions and pull the trigger. That’s uncivil. Being called out for your shitty reasoning and repeatedly exposed as the lying religionist you are? That’s reality, motherfuckers.