Facetious blueprint

Download PDF

An AI researcher (Kai-Fu Lee) has written an article (“A Blueprint for Coexistence with Artificial Intelligence“) that fails at its own goal, spectacularly.  He assures us we need not end up in the dystopias so common in movies and literature.  And I wanted to his assurances to be convincing, because I happen to feel the same way.  But they aren’t, because he (deliberately, I say) pulls a bait-and-switch, and so doesn’t attend to the actual matter of interest.

Lee dwells on narrow AI, good for using deep learning to achieve one task (say, winning at Go).   He is breezily dismissive of general AI, machine learning that can learn new tasks.  It’s not here (he says, correctly) and it’s not close (he asserts, with little basis).  I have to assume that, as a research in AI, he is aware of the history of the field, with its fits and starts and sudden, unexpected breath-taking leaps of innovation.  Is it guaranteed that we will get generalized AI within a century?  Of course not — but I don’t think the smart money bets against.

Restricting himself to narrow AI, Lee obviates the import of his article.  No one is worried that AlphaGo is going to take over the world.  And it was the MCP‘s chess-playing origins that made it a threat.  The AI people fear — the AI we have to worry about coexisting with — is the AI that can think as well as and as broadly as a human … or better.

To be fair, Lee correctly notes the actual threats that narrow AI poses for our economy.  Lots of people are going to find themselves replaced by machines that perform their jobs more quickly, more surely, and more cheaply.  It’s not in any way obvious that those jobs will be replaced, the way that jobs lost in the Industrial Revolution were replaced.  We’re not swapping out muscles; we’re swapping out minds.  For the past two centuries, industry has paid an increasing premium on renting the supercomputer in your skull.  If actual supercomputers can outperform your brain, it’s not clear what economic asset of value you’ll have left.

Lee’s “blueprint” revolves on that.  He calls for an economy that recognizes the (so-far) unique capacity of the human mind for love.  And he might be right.  Surely we will need to find some other asset, and our computational capacity will not be it.  Narrow AI, tailored to narrow goals, will never threaten human dominance in that arena.

But general AI is coming, probably sooner than Lee thinks, and there is no good reason to assume that emotions will remain forever outside its ken.  After all, emotions served some evolutionary purpose for us.

Lunacon 2014 (2): Saturday

Download PDF

Even though Lunacon is over, I’m going to keep writing up my notes and impressions, if only to keep writing in general.

Saturday was the busiest day of the con, and it certainly showed in my personal programming grid.  I faced the typical con paradox:  Too many good panels all at the same time.  I ended up at the following:

Marc Cohn @ The City Winery, 2012 Jan 26

Download PDF

{This has apparently been sitting in my Drafts folder for four years.  Oops.  I never finished it, so it ends abruptly. -=-BLG}

It’s been a while (a real long while) since I’ve gotten to a Marc Cohn show, but this one was worth it.  He played the City Winery, which is an odd hybrid of concert space, fine dining, boutique winery, and microbrewery.  I ordered my ticket early and got a really good seat at the last row of tables on the floor, just before the risers to a second tier.  And I snagged one that faced the stage (as about half of them face away), saving myself a tremendous crick in my neck.

I arrived well early so as to get dinner ordered and done before the show.  The food selection is a bit limited though it seemed like there was lots of good stuff on the menu.  I got a flatbread pizza and finished with an order of house-made pretzels that somehow or another are made from the house wine.  I don’t really get how that works.  The pretzels were fine (crunchy and mostly unsalted, which actually is what I wanted).   Since I don’t drink, I can’t speak to the wines.

On riots, protests, and the legitimacy of violence (short)

Download PDF

For everyone who has counseled the citizens of Baltimore (and Ferguson and…) that “violence is not the answer” and that it would be better if everyone just protested peacefully:

1) As has now been documented extensively, the protests were by and large peaceful — and even more by and large, ignored by the national media.

2) Violence certainly is an  answer — and one which history shows can be quite effective in prompting change.  See for proof the French Revolution, or the American Revolution, for that matter.  Of course violence is a random and uncontrolled beast, and the odds are that the reaction it prompts will not be the outcome desired… but usually, something will change.  For people who’ve spent their whole lives trapped in a system crushing them without end, any change might be welcome, at least at first.

Would you prefer peaceful protest to violent outbursts?  Would you see people advocate for the redress of grievances without resorting to threats or damage to property or even lives?  Then address the systemic evils, the in-built hardships and unspoken oppressions, the things done not through active racist thought but through the far worse passive racist without-thought.  You want people to respect the police?  Then demand that the police behave respectably.  You want your cities to be bastions of peace?  Then save them from being cauldrons of hopelessness.

Above all, if you want this problem to “just go away”, pay attention to it — and for love of all that is true, pay attention even when the fires have gone out and the windows have been repaired and the next big distraction comes down the tube.  This problem has been centuries in the making and we’ve squandered five decades or more in addressing it — it won’t ever go away until we finally put it away.

What explains the waning influence of research blaming black poverty on black culture

Download PDF

Vox has an article purporting to explore “The real reason research blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”.  And it’s fine so far as it goes, but it still dances around the reality.

Why has “blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”? Because the same dire straits and dead-end traits show up among the non-college-educated White population: increased parental absenteeism, increased substance abuse, socioeconomic lock. Since it would obviously be crazy to deduce that these problems are intrinsic to White culture, it’s no longer fashionable to assign a genetic driver to them. In reality of course, the actual lesson is: Take away good-paying jobs and educational opportunity, and — shocker! — families and communities feel stressed, leading to more disorder.

http://www.vox.com/2015/3/26/8253495/moynihan-report-liberal-backlash

Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1 “Deep Breath”

Download PDF

I finally got around to watching Season 8 Episode 1 (“Deep Breath”) of the revived Doctor Who.   It’s the first one with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  (What do we call him, anyway?  Is he the 12th Doctor, even though we know that Matt Smith‘s 11 was really the twelfth?)  So it’s probably worth a few words.

Warning: This will be rife with spoilers for which there will be no further apology.

Continue reading “Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1 “Deep Breath””

What is a library?

Download PDF

I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique.  But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down.  The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space.  The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education.  Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?

Continue reading “What is a library?”

The persistence of “factory”-style schools

Download PDF

Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute asksWhy Do ‘Anti-Corporatists’ Defend Factory-Style Leadership?”  There’s a lot in there I’d like to respond to; here’s my first swing at it.

It’s easy to blame hidebound educators for educational malaise, and some of the blame lands justly. But you cannot begin to understand the problem until you realize how strenuously parents resist any change that means their kids aren’t learning it the way they did. If education “looks different”, it is distrusted and undervalued. (Witness the growing backlash over Common Core.)

Continue reading “The persistence of “factory”-style schools”

All good things may come to an end, but you can sometimes revisit them

Download PDF

Today (2014 May 23) is the 20th anniversary of the airing of “All Good Things…”, the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It cannot be denied that this series is directly responsible for the resurgence of American sci-fi on television – without the Enterprise-D, there would have been no Babylon 5, no Stargate, no reimagined Battlestar Galactica.  Without the evidence that “geek culture” could make real money, there might well have been no Dark Night, no Lord of the Rings (movies), no Game of Thrones (series), no Avengers assembled.

Watching it again, I was surprised how well this episode holds up as a capstone to an amazing series.  Sure, there are glitches – the anomaly grows larger in the past, except when it doesn’t, after being created by tachyon pulses emitted by three Enterprises except one of them was the Pasteur.  But that’s just nitpicking.  The key to Trek has never been the technobabble.  It’s been the intricate interplay between sharply-drawn characters who wear their humanity on their sleeve, and the ineffable possibilities of existence itself.  And ST:TNG still had that ineluctable optimism that characterized the original.  It had hope in the stars and hope in us.   As much as I enjoy the grittier fare we generally get these days, I will admit to missing that simple faith in the future.