Common sense on AI

Interesting responses from Stuart Russell in an World Economic Forum interview:

Are robots taking over the world?

SR: There are three timescales and three versions of this question, and the answers are “Not if I can help it”, “Quite possibly, but hopefully in a good way” and “We would be crazy to be complacent on this issue”. In the near term, autonomous weapons in the hands of unpleasant humans are a real threat, the UN is working (slowly) towards a treaty banning them, and our council has been active in building support for a treaty within the profession and in the media. In the medium term, will robots take away all of our jobs? Some experts say yes, and economists recommend more unemployment insurance as the solution. Better ideas wanted!

But the real world-changing questions are further off, when, after several intrinsically unpredictable breakthroughs, we have human-level or superhuman AI. See, for example, Elon Musk’s comment that superintelligent AI poses the greatest existential threat to the survival of the human race. His point was that regulatory oversight at a national and international level is needed to responsibly develop technology. In my view it’s too soon to start designing regulations – on equations?? – but not too soon to start solving the technical questions of how to maintain absolute control over increasingly intelligent machines.

Yep.

Kenneth Arrow, RIP

The great economist has passed away, at the age of 95. I liked this story from the NYT obituary:

Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.

When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.

Well, not so fast.

Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.”

Trump’s media strategy: “darkly brilliant”

Bret Stephens of the WSJ gave the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at UCLA. It’s well worth reading in full, but this bit is really fine:

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asks:

“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that?”

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument. [Emphasis added]

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

This is brilliant. Really nails it.

Conservatism as performance art

From the NYT report of the abrupt fall of an alt-right provocateur:

Many on the right are pointing to the Yiannopoulos controversies as a symptom of a trend toward conservatism as performance art, placing less value on ideas like small government and self-reliance than it does on attitude, personality and provocation. While there are respected conservative thinkers on issues like tax reform, immigration and health care, they say, provocateurs like Mr. Yiannopoulos suck up most of the oxygen, becoming the public face of the movement and pushing more serious ideas to the sideline.

“You essentially have a world where there are no adults left, nobody exercising moral authority to say, ‘No, this does or does not meet our standards,’” said Matt Lewis, the conservative author of “Too Dumb to Fail,” which dissected how conservatives have abandoned ideas for outrage. “Everybody is just responding to perverse incentives to get more buzz.”

Mr. Lewis said he would bet that most conservatives had no idea where Mr. Yiannopoulos stood on taxes, abortion or any other issue that has traditionally been important to them. “The only thing we know about him is he’s vulgar, he’s a provocateur and he fights political correctness,” he said. “And I guess that’s what the definition is now for being a conservative.”

Why we still need expertise

From “How America Lost Faith in Expertise” by Tom Nichols…

In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, The Washington Post published the results of a poll that asked Americans about whether the United States should intervene militarily in Ukraine. Only one in six could identify Ukraine on a map; the median response was off by about 1,800 miles. But this lack of knowledge did not stop people from expressing pointed views. In fact, the respondents favored intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance. Put another way, the people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force there.

And the USA’s greatest cybersecurity vulnerability is… its President

This morning’s Observer column:

My favourite image of the week was a picture of the Queen opening the National Cyber Security Centre in London. Her Majesty is looking bemusedly at a large display while a member of staff explains how hackers could target the nation’s electricity supply. The job of the centre’s director, Ciaran Martin, is to protect the nation from such dangers. It’s a heavy responsibility, but at least he doesn’t have to worry that his head of state is a cybersecurity liability.

His counterpart in the United States does not have that luxury…

Read on

Can Zuck fix it?

Astute comment from Dave Pell on Mark Zuckerberg’s epistle to his believers:

Earlier this year, as he set out to visit all fifty states, speculation swirled that Mark Zuckerberg might be considering a future run for president. Of course, that theory brings up an obvious question: Why would he want the demotion? He already runs a virtual nation with a population that’s headed towards the two billion mark. But like the physical country in which he resides, there is a growing divide in Zuckerberg’s online community about the role of globalization. “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial.” It is now. And the Internet that was designed to bring us all together may in fact be driving us further apart. As I’ve mentioned before, the open communication network we thought we were building turned into a hunting ground for trolls and spammers; unavoidable because of our ferocious addiction to our mobile screens. Social media evolved into a confirmation bias-riddled cesspool of lies, hate, and totally unrealistic versions of our lives; which would gradually amount to little more than weightless collections of Retweets and Likes. And somehow – with more tools to connect than ever before — we made our lives less diverse; racially, politically, and culturally; each of us left to sink in the quicksand that lines the thickening walls of our silos of homogeneity. So we’re left with a question. Can Zuck fix it?

Answer: of course not. But pause for a moment to think about what lies behind this. One way of viewing it is to find Zuckerberg’s naïveté touching. Aw, shucks, what a sweet guy. But a more sceptical way of viewing it would be to read his epistle as a proposition for Facebook becoming the Internet. In other words: the world wide Internet has become a nasty, unsafe place. But we can make Facebook a warm cosy place. So why not give up on the public Internet and come inside where it’s safe?

The madness of King Donald – contd.

This interesting letter from a psychiatrist in the New York Times:

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.

ALLEN FRANCES

Coronado, Calif.

The writer, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical College, was chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (D.S.M.-IV).

King Donald’s press conference

Lovely report from Dave Pell:

TRUMPSTER FIRE
This weekend, Saturday Night Live should just replay the entire press conference delivered by President Trump on Thursday. It was beyond parody and made one thing clear: There’s not gonna be a Trump pivot. In an unhinged performance rivaled only by Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the president attacked the media, repeated bizarrely false statements about his electoral win, asked a black reporter if she could set up a meeting with the black congressional caucus (“Are they friends of yours?”), continually claimed Mike Flynn did nothing wrong (“I don’t think he did anything wrong. If anything, he did something right”), described himself as “the least antisemitic person you’ve ever seen in your life” and “probably the least racist,” gave a quick course on uranium, insisted his administration is “running like a fine-tuned machine,” referred over and over to the election and Hillary Clinton, decried the nonstop fake news (“The leaks are real, the news is fake”) without hinting at what was fake about it, and actually said, “I can handle a bad story better than anybody.” This press conference should be required viewing for every American. Even Fox News couldn’t restrain their initial reaction. A few times during the press conference, people in the room laughed. This is no laughing matter. At the risk of plagiarizing the president, this situation is a total disaster. And I know, I know, forty percent of Americans will think the presser was a bigly success. But the rest of just got a serious case of PTSD: President Trump Stress Disorder.

Like I said: the US elected a flake of Cadbury proportions.

More on Trump’s state of mind

Apropos an earlier post, here’s Elizabeth Drew writing in the New York Review of Books:

Trump’s possible mental deficiencies are also a troubling question: serious medical professionals suspect he has narcissistic personality disorder, and also oncoming dementia, judging from his limited vocabulary. (If one compares his earlier appearances on YouTube, for example a 1988 interview with Larry King, it appears that Trump used to speak more fluently and coherently than he does now, especially in some of his recent rambling presentations.) His perseverating about such matters as the size of his inauguration crowd, or the fantasy that three to five million illegal voters denied him a popular vote victory (he got these estimates from a dodgy source who has yet to offer documentation), or, as he told CIA employees, the number of times he’s been on the cover of Time (sometimes inflating the actual number) has become a joke, but it also suggests that there may be something troubling about his mental state. Numerous eminent psychologists and psychiatrists have written about or expressed their concerns about Trump’s mental stability.

Another puzzling thing: many of Trump’s tweets have a slightly pathetic tone — things are “so sad”, “so so unfair”, etc. It’d be interesting to do a sentiment analysis of his Twitterstream. Hmmm…