Monday, March 13, 2017

Artificial Stupidity

My new 3QD piece on the nature and future of AI:

"With exponential growth in computational power and availability of data, the unthinkable (literally, that which could not be thought) is now almost possible: Optimal – or near-optimal – choices can be calculated in real-time from vast amounts of data, even in some very complex tasks. And, thanks to the magic of machine learning, the mechanisms underlying these choices do not have to be specified by brain-limited humans; they can be inferred by the machines using the available data. So is AI finally going to give us the idealized rational agents of economists’ dreams? That is extremely doubtful! True, unlike the mechanisms of most human learning, the algorithms of machine learning are often based on rational objectives, but, like humans, machines must also learn from finite – albeit much larger – amounts of data. Thus, like humans, they too must fill in the gaps in data with heuristics – interpolating, extrapolating, simplifying, and generalizing just as humans do, but possibly in very different ways. And therein lies the rub! For now, machines try to learn something close to the human notion of rationality, which is already quite different from human thinking. But as intelligent machines progress to increasingly complex real-world problems and learn from increasingly complex data, the inferences they make will become less comprehensible, not more, because the complexity of the tasks will make the decision-making more opaque. And if machines are to become truly intelligent, they must become capable of learning rapidly like humans and other animals. But what they learn in that case will necessarily be even more biased by their priors and even less clearly interpretable to human observers – especially since many of these priors will themselves be acquired through learning."

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Inherent Bias

All demagogues and salesman are instinctive experts at exploiting what Kahneman and Tversky called "the availability heuristic" - having a particular exemplar come to represent a whole category because it is more readily available to the mind. This is, of course, the basis of stereotyping and ultimately of all bigotry. It is also an inescapable - and useful - feature of human cognition. The ability to evaluate a category in terms of a few exemplars is very useful when you're a hunter-gatherer on a dangerous prehistoric savannah and can't afford to see every kind of predator before learning to recognize dangerous animals. It is even useful in everyday life today, where quick decisions on whole categories of books, movies, foods, etc., that we do or do not like saves us a lot of time and effort for other. more useful things. The problem is that the bias carries over to judgments about categories of people. That is why no civilizational imperative has been more difficult to sustain throughout human history than the equality of all humans, and also why no bias has been exploited more successfully by tyrants and demagogues through the ages. Now we are seeing it again....

Trump's Foreign Policy

A look at Trump's incoherent, chaotic, foreign policy. This quote is spot on:

"As a result, not only is there nothing even close to a Trump doctrine, which would be more than anyone should expect, but even saying what the administration’s policy is on any given major issue is virtually impossible. This is not just embarrassing, but dangerous. The world will not wait until we get our act together. Left to their own guesswork, adversaries and allies can easily miscalculate the strength of our support or opposition. And other nations—friends like Germany, but also competitors like China—will move to fill any vacuum left by the confusion over America’s basic approach. All this suggests that the handwringing during the campaign about the potential for Trump to squander America’s global position by deliberately shifting the country toward a posture of isolation was misplaced. What is emerging is something else entirely; an abdication of our leadership by default."

But it is dangerously incorrect to claim, as the headline does, that Trump has "no foreign policy". The lack of coherence is, in fact, a policy, not an accident. This should not be confused with any sort of "three-dimensional chess" or "deliberate confusion". That is too optimistic a view of what we have. Rather, Trump's foreign policy reflects his view of the world and America's place in it. He sees both in simplistic, "toy world" terms, and does not feel the need to have a coherent policy beyond brandishing the military and threatening world leaders randomly without thinking. Policies are seen as necessary in situations that are recognized as being too complex for ad-hoc decision-making. Trump does not see the world in those terms. He plans to run the presidency as he has run his business: As an opportunistic enterprise. Of course, this will quickly lead to disaster on multiple fronts, not just in foreign policy. As others recognize the superficiality and arbitrariness of Trump's governance, whole industries will arise to take advantage of this. Breitbart is only the first of these. The price, of course, will be paid by the country and, indeed, the whole world. Trump isn't just the dog that has caught the car; he's the dog who has managed to get in the driver's seat. And we are all passengers in that car....

Jihad vs. McWorld

I remember reading this celebrated (and oft-mentioned) piece "Jihad vs. McWorld" by Benjamin Barber when it was originally published 24 years ago (yes, I was already an Atlantic subscriber then :-), but I think I only truly understand it now. The term "prescient" doesn't even begin to capture all the ways in which this analysis has remained valid through a quarter century of global upheaval. Anyone who hasn't read it should read it for the same reason as that one must read 'Heart of Darkness' or '1984': It captures the truth of our world beyond simple description.

Reading this now, I find it impossible to select a single paragraph to quote. Each one is more apt than the other! But here is how Barber begins the analysis:

"The tendencies of what I am here calling the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad's centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld's centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic—or so I will argue."

That last insight - that BOTH forces work against democracy - is the crucial one.

H/t Richard Florida on twitter

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Remembering J.K. Galbraith and a very important period in South Asian history.

Embodied Mathematics

This beautiful piece by Margaret Wertheim makes a profound point that is surprisingly little-appreciated: The universe computes from quarks to galaxies. We may need complex math to describe physics, chemistry and biology, but physical, chemical, and biological systems embody that math in their very being. They calculate and solve the complicated equations for free - just by existing! Once upon a time, in the pre-history of half a century ago, we did use this capability in the form of analog computers. Now we're beginning to use it again in exploiting biochemistry and quantum mechanics to do computations.

The World According to Mark

I feel so much better knowing that My Lord Mark the Benevolent is working to make the world a better place and to lead humanity to the next stage:

"There’s no perfect analogue for what Zuckerberg is proposing, but it’s closest to the role that major religions have played throughout history. Facebook is to become an organizing space where you meet people, engage with your neighbors and your world, organize to make changes in your community, relax with people like yourself, and receive information that helps you participate in government. And like religions — but unlike virtually any other organizing force in human history — Facebook is truly, intrinsically, global."

Actually, for all his noble intentions, what Mark Zuckerberg is discovering is the fact that, in complex systems, almost all consequences are unintended.

Counting on One's Fingers

Before there was fitbit or Apple Watch, there was this abacus on a ring....

Presidential Rank

Lists are both meaningless and interesting. This annual ranking of US presidents by historians is a good example. An especially remarkable fact is that, with the election of Donald Trump, the lower bound of this list is now fixed for all future time....

Hello, Pleistocene Park!

The mammoth will walk again, and a whole new menagerie will follow.

Shooting for the Stars

The future of space travel will not be an exclusive American or American-Russian project. Others are making remarkable strides. This achievement by India - the launching of more than 100 satellites in one mission - is a remarkable feat! It shows that the even more rearkable mission to Mars was not a one-off thing.

What Does the President Not Need to Know...

"Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns", reports the Wall Street Journal. This is truly terra incognita. We have only seen things like this in movies:

"The current and former officials said the decision to avoid revealing sources and methods with Mr. Trump stems in large part from the president’s repeated expressions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his call, during the presidential campaign for Russia to continue hacking the emails of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton."

The Future of America

This article continues the theme from another recent post about the changing demographics of America,. The sub-five year old population is already majority non-white. That's the future. The question is whether this diverse population will thrive. This paragraph really stood out to me in this article:

"Today, nearly half of young people under age 18 are racial minorities and a quarter are first and second generation immigrants. And this fraction will grow as the white population continues to age. Policies that invest in their future—their education, their health and their families’ well-being—will be essential for strong national growth. This will only occur if the older mostly white generation understands this and is willing to support the investment that this next multicultural generation needs."

That's a really important issue.

The New Jim Crow

Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 presidential election may have had many fathers, but one of the most important and least visible was the systematic voter suppression machine that Republicans have deployed in recent years. Democrats have begun to reverse it a bit with help from the courts, but now with Republicans and Jeff Sessions in charge of Justice, this may be an exercise in futility. The best hope of liberals will be countering this bigotry with aggressive voter outreach, education, mobilization, and support.

Homer's Homelands

A beautiful, interesting map showing the homeland of every character in the Iliad.

With Time Running Out ...

Are we living in Weimar America? I don't think so. This is a 250-year old established democracy and the world's undisputed superpower, not a fragile, recent republic erected on the ashes of a defeated country. But this does not mean that the country is not in real peril. Unhappy societies, like unhappy families, have their distinct ways of being unhappy. Ours will not be like Germany in 1930; it will be like America in 2017. And, in this interview, Timothy Snyder is absolutely right about the fact that the window of time to prevent a crisis is brief. And he's right when he says:

"The temptation in a new situation is to imagine that nothing has changed."

Our imaginations need to be deployed better.

The Indus Valley Mystery

This very interesting interview of the Indus Valley scholar, Asko Parpola, suggests that, at last, the enduring mysteries of the Indus Valley Civilization may be relenting slightly.

Swarajya is not normally a fount of insight :-), but here the erudite Dr. Parpola keeps the focus on reality....

The Stranger in Our Midst

Human history is a chronicle of migration. We populated the world by moving out of Africa and reaching every corner of the globe. Throughout recorded history (and surely through all of unrecorded history), human populations have migrated due to war, famine, disease, natural calamity, and in search of better opportunity. One thing that has always traveled with these migrating populations is the opprobrium of their hosts. With a few exceptions, migrants - especially in large numbers - have aroused the natural xenophobia of settled populations. The idea that the diversity introduced by the migrants is, in fact, a force for renewal is both modern and unnatural for the human lizard brain - as described in this wonderful review of four books.

Jigar ....

A wonderful ghazal by Jigar Muradabadi

Unequal Death

The distribution of mortality and its causes is very non-homogeneous across the United States. Appalachia, in particular, is like an ugly scar on the map with substance abuse snuffing out lives and hopes every day.