It’s been two years since I woke up to a country I didn’t recognize, and I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with what that means. I suspect that won’t be ending any time soon.
Over the course of this administration, my social media feeds have been peppered with reactions to outrages that were virtually unimaginable (in my bubble) before — an accelerating dash toward authoritarian or even dystopian policies and attitudes: Endorsing political violence. Calling for imprisonment without trial or even evidence. Designating a free press “the enemy of the people”. Caging children.
I finally got to see The Last Jedi (after two previous failed attempts, both amazingly sold out afternoon shows, a month after the premier). I liked it a lot. My personal rankings of the “main” Star Wars movies is now something like
- The Empire Strikes Back
- Star Wars (A New Hope)
- The Force Awakens
- The Last Jedi
- The Return of the Jedi
- The Revenge of the Sith
- The Phantom Menace
- The Attack of the Clones
But there was something that really stands out. Spoilers ahead!
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.
A GOP Congressman (Clay Higgins, LA) decided to film a selfie movie in the gas chamber at Auschwitz (no, really), in which he tells constituents that the horrors really spoke to him:
“A great sense of dread comes over you in this place,” Higgins says, leading the viewer on a five-minute, nine-second tour of the site, with a dirge-like solo violin playing in the background. “Man’s inhumanity to man can be quite shocking.”
So far, so good. It’s hard to argue with that. I watched the entire five minutes and am glad I did, because I was ready to ridicule him for glibly appropriating the Holocaust to make a political point. That was unfair. He is appropriately somber, even horrified, and he makes no attempt to make light of or dismiss the enormity of what happened there.
But the lesson he takes away is not that we all have an obligation to each other, that evil arises anywhere and must be resisted everywhere, or that the world must not stand silent and willfully blinded while horrors unfold. No, he thinks somehow that Auschwitz reinforces his own jingoistic isolationist slant on things. He thinks that we must wall ourselves off, lock ourselves away, and fear outsiders (all outsiders) as morally equivalent and morally suspect, even dangerous:
“This is why homeland security must be squared away, why our military must be invincible,” says Higgins, a former law enforcement officer who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. “The world’s a smaller place now than it was in World War II. The United States is more accessible to terror like this, horror like this.
Somehow, in five minutes, he can’t quite bring himself to say that the victims were Jews, and that they were victims because they were Jews — that they were the targets of unreasoned, dehumanizing, state-sponsored fear and hate. That they had been painted by a broad brush as dangerous, subversive, and threatening, blamed for all the woes of a drifting nation in the throes of economic and demographic change … and that many of them were not snatched from abroad but were victimized by the country of which they were citizens.
The lesson of Auschwitz, or at least one of them, must be this: It’s not about “keep that evil out”. It’s about “It must never happen here”. We mustn’t fool ourselves that we, or anyone, are intrinsically immune to the cancer of spirit that led here. The camps were not built by disenfranchised, diffuse foreign hordes but by one of the preeminent powers and cultures of Europe. It’s likely that many of the victims he laments found their way to safety barred by an America too focused on its “homeland security” to allow anyone past the golden lamp.
So, unexpectedly, I respect the emotion that this man clearly felt, the horror and even perhaps empathy for the victims of the Holocaust. But I think these chambers stand as a stark challenge to his philosophy, not as an endorsement of it.
I am stunned. Although I spent the last week cautioning people from assuming a Clinton victory, although I told myself it’s never over until the ballots are cast, I realize now that I never actually entertained the possibility of a Trump victory. I had too much faith in the basic decency of the American people, in the strength of our institutions, in the essential goodness of the American experiment. I understand now that I was naïve.
It is possibly the only thing I understand.
I haven’t seen exit polls or autopsies. I have not read commentary or watched spin. Right now I am working from the barest electoral facts, which is a majority in the electoral college and a majority of the popular vote. I have no intellectual escape route: For this result to be announced, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere among something I thought I understood. I don’t believe that widespread electoral fraud is feasible. I don’t believe that polling so consistent can be consistently wrong together. And I don’t believe that the American people would elect to the highest office a buffoon who is open about his racism, misogyny, and narcissism. But at least one of those things has happened.
Very soon – already, I suspect – there will begin the quadrennial nodding of heads and reading of bones to discern the “true America”. We’ll hear the lessons people should learn from this – what Clinton did wrong, what Trump got right. It will take only a day or so for this to crystallize into paeans about the wisdom of the American voter, where the consensus is that Democrats moved too far too fast for a country not ready for the change. This victory will become, in hindsight, inevitable. And the cycle of bullshit will begin again.
But it will be a darker time. We just held an election that, more than ever before in my lifetime, offered two stark choices: The America of the future, or the America of the past. We had a chance to move past our history, to begin a new covenant that recognizes how our country is changing and celebrates that change, that preserves core American values while accepting new circumstances, that would fashion itself into a beacon for the 21st century. And we had the opportunity to plug our fingers in our ears, scream loudly, and stamp our feet demanding that we somehow travel back to a mythical time that never existed, an America of the past – a time where vast swaths of the population suffered routine indignities and oppression for the crime of being different, when people knew their place and were slapped down for thinking about leaving it, when the accidents of your birth mattered more than the content of your character.
We were engaged in a battle for the soul of America. And the good guys lost.
I don’t know what’s coming next. I have one foot over the abyss and am trying right now just to regain my balance. This election has taught me that I do not really understand my nation or its people the way I thought I did, and the way ahead is shrouded. But I do know history. I know that it never ends well when a people chooses an erratic self-absorbed, willfully ignorant, and simply hate-filled leader. I know that it never ends well when a nation decides to scapegoat a fraction of its population to avoid demographic fact. I know that it never ends well when an aging power becomes aware of the fragility of its status and turns inward to root out the supposed enemies sapping its vitality. We’ve seen this play before.
And perhaps that’s the core of my anger and disappointment. Our grand experiment to transcend history, to do better, to be better than what came for … that lies broken on the floor. We are just as scared, as easily manipulated, as damaged as anyone else. We can be swayed by empty slogans and schoolyard bullying and adolescent appeals. Despite falling in line with fevered calls to recognize American exceptionalism, the electorate has rendered America ordinary. I wasn’t prepared for that.
I hope I will never accept it.
I just finished rewatching Mad Max: Fury Road. I have to say, I can understand why the film earned the online ire of the so-called men’s rights activists (MRAs). It takes all the high-octane testosterone-drenched tropes of the typical action flick, ramps them up to 11 and, in so doing, exposes the madness that lies at the heart of the culture.
Gov. Huckabee is entirely correct: SCOTUS cannot overrule God. The justices can’t make a gay marriage sanctified. But then, they can’t make a straight marriage sanctified either. It’s really quite simple: To the extend that marriage is a sacrament, the government cannot have an opinion, and the marriage-equality suits do not speak to this. To the extent that marriage is a social contract for the transmission of and management of property — i.e., its historical role in society — then the government can regulate and must ensure equality. Anything else is sophistry.
That means I happen to agree with the loons in Oklahoma and elsewhere, though I disavow their motives: Get the state out of marriage entirely. Enact universal civil union laws that any pair of consenting adults may enter into, and leave the sacraments to the churches.
From Talking Points Memo:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), no stranger to mixing religion and politics, might have outdone himself on Wednesday night when he greeted the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.”I do not come to you tonight with the ability to speak Spanish. But I do speak a common language: I speak Jesus,” he said, according to CNN.
I actually agree with most of what Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post op-ed “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous“. We need balanced, robust, well-rounded education, not narrow business-driven training. It will take many different vantages points to see solutions to the problems we face in this hardest century of human history. Students of mine often express shock (and perhaps a little betrayal) when they complain about, say, their history teacher and ask me “Don’t you think it’s just a waste of time?” only for me to reply that it is one of my favorite subjects. As a physics guy, I obviously think we need more and better science teaching, but I also think we need more and better teaching in the humanities and the arts.
Having said that… boy, does this one sentence put me in a slow burn:
No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.
It angers me that Farakaria, with a vast platform, falls into the stereotypical thinking that these skills — learning, writing, thinking — are somehow not part of the math/science pool. In actuality, of course, scientists, engineers, and coders practice those skills constantly. While there are surely scientists who cannot write, there are English majors with the same problem. STEM thinking isn’t the only kind of thinking we need, but it is thinking. It is both disingenuous and insulting for him to imply otherwise.
I know it’s a small piece of a larger argument, but it still rankled me.
Today the NY Times published an Upshot op-ed called “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems“. It’s one of those article that seems to say more than it does. It doesn’t actually support the conclusion it asserts. Saying that roughly the same percentage of “top students” still get admission to elite schools is almost self-evidently circular, and does nothing to dispute the notion that “college admissions has become a Hunger Games-like tournament”. In the Hunger Games, the same number of winners happened each year — but the competition wasn’t always the same. And what constitutes a “top student” could (and does!) vary from year to year without creating more of them.