Quote of the Day

“Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth.”

Isaiah Berlin

Our new bi-polar world

This morning’s Observer column:

What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?

Read on

Robert Mueller’s new boss

From Jack Shafer:

After treating Attorney General Jeff Sessions 10 times worse than one of his wives he had grown tired of, President Donald Trump finally jettisoned the Alabaman this week for Matthew G. Whitaker, a marginally talented former U.S. attorney from Iowa who thinks candidates for judgeships should be asked if they are “people of faith” with a “biblical view of justice.” He makes Steve Bannon look like Adlai Stevenson. Like Bannon, his highest qualification for serving the president as the nation’s top cop is his skill at slathering Trump with his fawning and bootlicking. As acting attorney general, Whitaker will now exercise oversight over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, an undertaking he has called a “lynch mob.” In 2017, Whitaker claimed not a “single fact” showed there was any evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 election. He also suggested on CNN that year that Mueller’s team could be throttled by cutting the budget “so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt.”

Cognitive Dissonance in Silicon Valley? Or maybe they know something we don’t?

Very interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles:

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?

He has a hunch:

“One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?” a puzzled Mr. Harari said one afternoon in October. “For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”

Could it be that they’re not that concerned about his warnings that digital tech is dangerous for democracy because, basically, they’ve given up on it?

Brexit is Suez 2.0

For me the most striking phrase in Jo Johnson’s admirable resignation statement was this:

“To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”

Suez is the right historical analogy. The only problem is that I suspect most British voters under 60 won’t have a clue about what it means. Which is a pity. The crisis stemmed from the response of the UK government, then led by Anthony Eden, to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Colonel Nasser, the leader of the military putsch which had taken control of the Egyptian state. Eden — with the vociferous support of his (Conservative) party, British newspapers and much of public opinion — saw this as a direct challenge to British interests in the Middle East. Accordingly, Eden embarked on a plan to launch an invasion of Egypt in collusion with the French (joint-owners of the canal) — and the Israelis. Since Eden knew that the US government — then led by President Eisenhower, whose wartime experience had led him to be sceptical about the Imperial delusions of his British allies — would not approve such unilateral action, all of the planning was done in secret.

The basic idea was that the Israelis (who had their own problems with Nasser) would invade Egypt, after which Britain and France would intervene to ‘restore’ order (and of course deal with the Nasser ‘problem’). It was, in a way, gunboat diplomacy in the time-honoured imperialist tradition, fuelled by hysterical references to the 1938 Munich crisis when the British had failed to “stand up to” Hitler.

On October 26 1956, the Israelis attacked. On October 30 Britain and France — which had assembled a larger invasion force and a huge number of fighter and bombers in British bases in Cyprus — sent ultimatums to Israel and Egypt. By November 1, most of Nasser’s air force had been destroyed. On November 5 British troops landed near Port Said. As the reality of getting seriously involved in a Middle Eastern war dawned on the British public, enthusiasm for the venture rapidly cooled. And while all of this was going on, the USSR found the international furore surrounding Eden’s action a convenient Western distraction as its forces invaded Hungary and crushed the democratic uprising that was under way there. As the then US Vice-President, Richard Nixon, later observed, “”We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser”. Beyond that, it was Eisenhower’s belief that if the United States were seen to acquiesce in the attack on Egypt the resulting backlash in the Arab world might win the Arabs over to the Soviet Union.

So the Americans pulled the plug on the Brits. Following on the precipitous fall in the value of sterling (the Bank of England had lost $45 million between 30 October and 2 November in attempting to shore up the currency), the US piled on the pressure. Britain — which was running out of oil because of the closure of the canal (Nasser had blocked it by bombing ships that were in transit) — applied to the IMF for help, which was refused. Eisenhower instructed the US Treasury to prepare to sell part of the US Government’s Sterling Bond holdings. It rapidly became clear to those in London that Britain’s foreign exchange reserves could not prevent the devaluation of the pound that would follow such action and that the country would rapidly find itself unable to import the food and energy supplies needed to sustain the population. An existential crisis loomed, and the British caved in. Eden resigned (on ‘health’ grounds) and was succeeded by Harold Macmillan, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the invasion, and probably had his own reasons for keeping the Americans informed about what was going on.

The Suez adventure was an epochal event that was widely seen in some parts of British society as a humiliation. But to detached observers it was the moment when it became clear that a UK that had been exhausted and effectively bankrupted by WW2 was no longer a global power. To believe otherwise would be delusional. Which is why from that moment onwards, the UK never did anything adventurous in a military or diplomatic sense without the explicit approval of the US. However, in some sections of the British establishment — not to mention in its tabloid media and in the psyche of many of its older citizens — subliminal imperial delusions lingered.

Which brings us to Brexit. This is — as Jo Johnson implies — another Suez moment. One of the (many) astonishing aspects of the Referendum campaign was that the question of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland was never mentioned, despite the fact that — in the event of a decision by the UK to leave — that border would automatically become the western frontier of the EU (and therefore, of the Single Market). When the realisation dawned on people after the vote that there might be a problem here — given that an open, frictionless border had been an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement guaranteed by Ireland and the UK — the old imperial delusions returned. It was surely inconceivable, the Brexiteers fumed, that a puny state like the Irish Republic (which was determined not to return to a hard border) could be allowed to frustrate the will of the great British nation. One Brexiteer (I think it was Boris Johnson) even said that it would probably be a good idea for the Republic to leave the EU at the same time as the UK. And it was likewise seen as inconceivable that the EU would, in the end, allow such a piffling matter to get in the way of an agreement with the mighty UK.

Now, however, the penny has dropped: people in the UK are beginning to realise that this cavalier disregard of the ‘Irish problem’ was in fact another manifestation of imperial delusion. As the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley pointed out the other day, the Irish government has from the outset played a smarter game than its UK counterpart. It made sure from Day One that the issue of the border would be one of the EU’s ‘red lines’. And so the UK’s failure to get the EU to budge on the issue — and Theresa May’s need to fudge the ‘backstop’ issue — provides a salutary estimate of Britain’s reduced role in the world. The EU is, in its way, an economic superpower; the UK is just another country — albeit one that once happened to have an empire. The experience vividly illustrates what the balance of power will be when an ‘independent’ UK has to negotiate with Trump’s US or other trading blocs.

The UK will continue to be a significant country and a sizeable economy. But a global power it ain’t any longer. So Jo Johnson is right — this is Suez 2.0. The main difference is that Theresa May is not Anthony Eden, who really was delusional about the extent of British power. May is just (as David Runciman once observed) a conscientious Head Girl doing her best to carry out a set of impossible instructions. But, in the end, she will go the same way as Eden. All political careers, as Enoch Powell used to say, end in failure.

Amazon Prime cat

Whenever a packet arrives from Amazon, our cats insist on exploring it after it’s been opened. Here’s the latest explorer testing it as a possible new residence.

Understanding platforms

From an interesting piece by Max Fisher:

We think of any danger as coming from misuse — scammers, hackers, state-sponsored misinformation — but we’re starting to understand the risks that come from these platforms working exactly as designed. Facebook, YouTube and others use algorithms to identify and promote content that will keep us engaged, which turns out to amplify some of our worst impulses.

Even after reporting with Amanda Taub on algorithm-driven violence in Germany and Sri Lanka, I didn’t quite appreciate this until I turned on Facebook push alerts this summer. Right away, virtually every gadget I owned started blowing up with multiple daily alerts urging me to check in on my ex, even if she hadn’t posted anything. I’d stayed away from her page for months specifically to avoid training Facebook to show me her posts. Yet somehow the algorithm had correctly identified this as the thing likeliest to make me click, then followed me across continents to ensure that I did.

It made me think of the old “Terminator” movies, except instead of a killer robot sent to find Sarah Connor, it’s a sophisticated set of programs ruthlessly pursuing our attention. And exploiting our most human frailties to do it.

Blind faith in Moore’s Law sometimes leads to dead ends

John Thornhill had an interesting column in the Financial Times the other day (sadly, behind a paywall) about Moore’s Law and the struggles of the tech industry to overcome the physical barriers to its continuance.

This led me to brood on one of the under-discussed aspects of the Law, namely the way it has enabled the AI crowd to dodge really awkward questions for years. It works like this: If the standard-issue AI of a particular moment in time proves unable to perform a particular task or solve a particular problem, then the strategy is to say (confidently): “yes but Moore’s Law will eventually provide the computing power to crack it”.

And sometimes that’s true. The difficulty, though, is that it assumes that all problems are practical — i.e. ones that are ultimately computable. But some tasks/problems are almost certainly not computable. And so there are times when our psychic addiction to Moore’s Law leads us to pursue avenues which are, ultimately, dead ends. But few people dare admit that, especially when hype-storms are blowing furiously.

Posted in AI