Thursday, 11 September 2014

Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit


How Does the World Really Look
Through Rose-Coloured Glasses?
Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.  Quickly, the Latin translates to English as "man proposes, but God disposes."  It's a terse assessment of the reality that in the end, whatever we as decidedly mortal beings with quite explicit limitations imagine, not all will come to fruition.

Put another way, in sports terms, mother nature bats last.

I write from time to time on a variety, at times an odd variety, of topics.  These sit at the intersection of interests of mine: in no particular order, mathematics, music, politics, travel, life in France, things that happen in my daily life, random items that I encounter in print.  It's a bit of a random walk, or, in French, un peu al√©atoire.  I write these mainly for my own amusement, but also for a clutch of family and friends.  I actually have seven (7) 'followers,' (there is a running gag on Fox News's "Robot Red Eye Theatre" that MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has seven viewers; in my case, that's the actual, exact figure.  I'm doing as well as Rachel!  Hooray!), but the truth is, one is my mother, one my sister, and a third is my wife.  

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about the possibility that Silicon Valley, which is trumpeted in the popular and prestige press as an incubator of creativity and innovation, may have reached a sort of "peak innovation."  Perhaps, even might have passed that.  It's a bit like the idea of "peak oil."  Without re-hashing the discussion, there is a distinct feel that what is drawing the oxygen, if not the brain power, in the Valley is less real innovation, and more clever marketing.  I asked, Has Silicon Valley run out of big ideas?

As Valley Wag Peter Thiel said, we expected flying cars; we got 140 characters.

Now typically, my posts will get a few dozen page views.  50 if the winds blow in a fortunate direction.  Occasionally, 75.  The post about The Valley has received several hundred views.  (I am a maths guy, so I find it hard to resist numbers and measures; I admit, thus, that I look at the pageviews.)

I'm not a professional writer, and I have no delusions of adequacy, as the saying goes.  But I was a bit surprised.  The most eyes that had visited a previous post was 150 or so pairs.  So, this particular post pulled more than the top three combined.

Quo vadis?

I lived most of my adult life in Silicon Valley, and have written about it many times before.  The politics, the culture, the bizarre, solipsistic reaction (over-reaction) to private activism.  

Each received higher than usual traffic, but still, between 50 and 80 page views.

I looked at the Google diagnostics, and lo and behold, the thread had somehow been cross-posted to a thread on Reddit called DarkFuturology.  I have visited Reddit on a few occasions in the past, but I am not a Reddit user.  Hence, someone who is a Redditor came across my post.

As Wilde said, the only way to deal with temptation is to give in to it, so I looked at the threads; it's a curious mish-mash of comments about possible impacts of technology, primarily as a dystopian vision.  Some of the discussion is, to say the least, raw.  My own ersatz contribution has received a mostly positive (88% "up-voted") response.  I'm mildly grateful it was not attacked as "click-bait."  

From DarkFuturology's own banner:
DarkFuturology examines dystopian trends. We emerged from growing disagreement with the utopian, techno-optimist perspectives prevailing in the original subreddit.
One of the comments/responses to the initial post was
We're about to get self driving cars and rockets to mars. If this article is true then we have no fear of being automated out of our jobs
My own musings in this instance are less about the potential dystopic impact of tech and more about how it seems that real innovation is being replaced by fake innovation, dressed up in a black turtleneck and pitched with a dollop of faux hipster irony.  At the least, the pace of real innovation has slowed, and as I said, it appears that the more noise made about an advance, the less profound the advances are becoming.

As an aside, I would respond to the poster that self-driving cars are first and foremost not really a 'big idea,' and I am dubious that we are at the advent of rockets to Mars.  It's ironic as well, that the day after I made my remark, Twitter (motto: you cannot spell "Twitter" without "twit") will raise $1.3 billion with a stock offering.

Equally, I am a true sceptic that self-driving cars will become uniform, unless they are forced on us by the state.  People, males especially, like to control their vehicles, and I reckon that they always will.  The fact that high-end performance cars (Porsches, Audi supercars, McLarens, Ferraris) still come with manually operated transmissions is an instructive clue.  If guys cleave to stick shifts, what makes anyone think that they will willingly give up the wheel?

But the discussion did lead me to ask, "do I have a dystopian view of the future?"  

So far as tech is concerned, I would have to say, "maybe."  I do not necessarily fear the sort of future of Skynet, or that machines are going to turn on us in an orgy of silicon mayhem and blood as in "WestWorld."  I'm in the minority who believe that real artificial intelligence is not a likely scenario, if for no other reason than I was convinced by John Searle's famous "Chinese Room" arguments (a close friend from college took his doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley).  

I don't believe a machine can be made to think.  I've written about this before

My view of the present is that, all things considered, I am damned happy to be alive now compared to any other period in history.  I cannot think of a single actual, measurable way that life was better at any time in the best.  Longevity?  Material wealth?  Health?  Geopolitical stability (the manufactured crisis in Syria and Ukraine to the side).  

This is not just true of the US or the developed world.

Things are different of course.  But if one is being honest, it seems impossible to reach any other conclusion.

That said, I am not optimistic about the future.  And this is not really related to climate change, or peak oil, or the fear that crazed, bearded men are going to over-run and destroy the west.  

Machines may not ever actually think for themselves (a la AI).  But if one steps back for a second, they won't actually have to.  

I completely agree with the first critic on DarkFuturology, that we in fact do have a threat of being automated out of work.  This is not a big idea of course - since the dawn of humanity, one of the forces majeures driving us is the creation of labour-saving devices.  The lever, the wheel, the wagon, the motor car, the washing machine.  Each of these has been on the whole beneficial; but each has had costs - dramatic costs in some cases.

I wrote about this some months ago here, with a hat-tip to the campy, 1976 movie "Logan's Run."

The special effects are laughable now, and the pretensions of what the future would look like perhaps even more comical, but the made-for-tv movie Logan's Run (featuring a young Farrah Fawcet before The Poster) came to mind when I read a recent column by John Derbyshire.  In it, the professional pessimist provides some thoughts on the impact on work and prospects for life in the not-distant future.  A future where technology has improved to, if not true AI, some semblance of it.
It isn't particularly pretty.

Each new advance has been similar - there are winners and losers.  Automobiles made hansom cab operators redundant.  Word processing has cut the need for a typing pool.  I suppose that text mining software may make market analytics a less than safe occupation.

All along, we have been advised to continue educating ourselves; to keep climbing the ladder to stay relevant.  Famously, US President Barak Obama got into a minor kerfuffle when he quipped about ATMs replacing bank tellers, with the solution being that the teller train to programme or repair  ATMs.  

The problem with this model is three-fold.

First, thousands of ATMs require only a hand-ful of programmers/repairmen, so there is a basic problem of arithmetic.


Second, being a bank teller requires a certain amount of intellect (counting, face recognition, ability to follow orders).  Writing the code requires a different, more complex set of skills.  It's just not possible that everyone who is smart enough to be a bank teller is smart enough to make or maintain an ATM.  


Finally, the situation does not scale up forever.  In allegorical terms, staying ahead of technology creep is like climbing a burning rope.  So long as one can climb faster than the fire, one will not get burnt.  But the rope at some point is anchored to something.  At some point, you will simply run out of rope.

None of this requires tremendous innovation, so it's a bit beside the points raised at DarkFuturology.  But the professional pessimist John Derbyshire (note: I enjoy reading his columns; I don't share all of his views, so please.  No nasty notes).
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]
On another point, I am firmly pessimistic about the basic demographic trap that the west is in.  Put quite bluntly, the ruling class and those in coastal cities are creating a future where children themselves are an annoyance.  I've written here, and here about the formal and informal policies being adopted, and the impact the new urbanism is having on families.

My view is that the future belongs to those who are there to see it.

There was a truly disturbing article by the demographer Joel Kotkin recently published
 
Where Will the San Franciscans of 2114 Come From?

The publication provides heat maps of various "hot" cities in the US, and the results are unsettling to say the least.  In the image above, three of four households in San Francisco, California - the current epi-centre of the walkable, urban, hip lifestyle - have no children present.  Similar patterns are seen in Manhattan, Boston, and Washington, DC.  If one pauses to think about this for three seconds, it is shocking.

That reality is already being discussed loudly in Europe where I live; I reckon it is a hot topic in Japan as well, where childless adults are making do with electric "pets".  Not sure at what point the horrific scenario played out in the dystopic novel Children of Men will start to be discussed seriously, but this fact alone makes me pessimistic.

Until now, technology has been seen as a servant; a saviour.  I share the views of many of the writers at DarkFuturology, in at least as far as I do not have a blind faith that science is going to save us.

So, whilst I am not really a pessimist in the classical sense, I would have to plead guilty to being a sceptic, and increasingly, a cynic.  But then, as I am fond of saying (most recently, to my boss), the power of accurate observation is frequently called 'cynicism' by those who haven't got it.  Bernard Shaw said it first, but I find it applies.

And thus, I have no illusions of seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses.  Quoting the otherwise forgettable 1980s-era movie with Scott Baio (?!?!?) "Zapped," when asked how the world looks through cracked glasses, I would give the following response.

Cracked.
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