Tuesday, 28 February 2017

And the Oscar Goes to...

Not Really a Nurse

Two days ago, I had a shared, surreal experience with millions of other people. The event was the Academy Awards, and by now, just about everyone is aware of the large error that occurred at the end. 

That is to say, the winner for "Best Picture" was awarded in error to the movie "La La Land," rather than the actual winner, "Moonlight." 

The mistake was explained simply that the presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, were given the wrong envelope by a partner from the accounting firm, PriceWaterhouse/Coopers. The man, whose fate remains in the balance, was apparently distracted due to the need to "tweet" about the winner of "Best Actress," an award that had just been given to Emma Stone, who starred in "La La Land."

As it were, the accountant, Brian Cullinan, handed a duplicate of the "Best Actress" award to Beatty rather than the envelope for "Best Picture," and as fate would have it, Stone was the female lead in one of the movies nominated for Best Picture.

Beatty opened the envelope, paused several times, and was visibly confused by what he saw. After a few moments, the card was snatched away by Dunaway, who dutifully read "La La Land," mistaking what was printed - "Emma Stone for 'La La Land'" - to mean that the movie, not the actress, was the winner.

Heads are likely to roll, and a thousand jokes have been launched. But it should be a cautionary tale to anyone who takes movie actors too seriously.

That is this: These people are paid to say and do what someone who, typically, is much smarter than I are tell them to say and do.

They are vessels into which ideas are poured.

It's ironic in that winner after winner gushed about the collective brilliance of each other, and joked about how dim the president is. But when it came right down to actually thinking, Beatty and Dunaway swung and missed.

A little over a decade ago, I saw a live performance by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld, unlike many of those on display Sunday, is not known for being overly political, or lecturing us on how we should think, live, or act. He tells his jokes, gets a laugh, and goes back to his private life.

In his routine, Seinfeld joked about exactly how silly it is for actors to laud each other for brilliance, when the real genius is actually the guys behind the camera - the writers and directors.

Actors are little more than glove puppets.

I've before been less than kind in suggesting that actors, athletes, and musicians are the gladiators of our time. We pay them to entertain us. Often, handsomely. But their fame and their wealth should not be mistaken for genuine awareness or credibility.

Of course, they have as much right as the next person to hold and express opinions about politics, policy, science, no matter how poorly informed. But they don't have more right because of their fame and wealth. 

That Meryl Streep played a scientist does not mean she knows anything about science.

I've studied neuroscience for many years. One of the elements of cognition is what is called "executive function." This is a fancy word for a person being able to think "outside the box" - to react in an intelligent way when a situation arises with which they are not prepared and/or not familiar. It is one of the basic elements of testing artificial intelligence. If I give you a list of 30 things to do, send you off to do it, but along the way, make it impossible to accomplish one of the items, can you find a "work around?"

Sunday, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway got a basic test of executive function, and they failed.

Pretty misreably.

What they could have done was to recognize that something was wrong with the script. Either could have said, "this card is for Best Actress," and requested another. They could have looked off stage for help. Neither did. They simply did not have the acumen to reckon any sort of corrective action.

Actors like to joke that so and so is "dumber than a fifth grader."

Well, Sunday, the joke was on them. Remember that the next time a glove puppet tries to give you political advice.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Ground, She's Moving Under Me

They made us too smart, too quick and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That's why they hate us.

One of the many moments of the (in my opinion, very under-rated) movie AI: Artificial Intelligence that sticks with me, a decade later, was the discussion between Joe and David, the protagonist of the story. Both, you see, were "mecha," mechanised human beings created for various "needs" of humans in the not distant future.

David, abandoned by his "mother," has determined that it is because he is not real, and seeks answers as to how he might become human and thus, regain her affections. Joe, designed for other purposes, tries to explain the situation to David, and does so starkly.

The past few weeks - indeed, months and years - have been quite tumultuous, both in the US and abroad. Yesterday, the new president of the USA, Donald Trump, held a somewhat rambling press conference, in which he lashed out at various news and other media outlets for creating "fake" news stories. He kicked the whole thing off with a declaration that he was left "a mess" by his predecessor.

Later last night, I was watching a brief debate between former Secretary of Labour Robert Reich (served under Bill Clinton), and libertarian economist Stephen Moore. Reich belittled Trump's claim that there is any mess, and cited a number of economic statistics - low unemployment, a booming stock market, job and wage growth - as evidence. His discussion wound up with the conclusion that Trump, economically, was left a "gift" rather than a mess.

I find this description from Reich, who now is a professor across the bay at UC Berkeley, odd, as he has for years been beating a basso ostinato about the growing gap of rich and poor in the modern economy. Apparently, that no longer constitutes a problem.

Mission accomplished.

Of course, the truth is far murkier than a 10 second political talking point, and the continued erosion of the American middle class represents a tremendous threat. The phrase "President Trump" attests to the rising anxiety, and that anxiety does not derive from whole cloth.

Yesterday, a vote was taken in the European Parliament in Brussels regarding the growing ethical concerns of the rise of the machines. (Apologies; the article is in French).

Over the past year or more, an increasing number of people, including voices who know like Elon Musk (Tesla) and Steve Wozniak (the real brains behind Apple), are warning of a potential dystopian future that real artificial intelligence may birth. Two years ago, Woz had this to say:

Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they'll think faster than us and they'll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently. 

Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don't know about that … But when I got that thinking in my head about if I'm going to be treated in the future as a pet to these smart machines … well I'm going to treat my own pet dog really nice.

The vote in the EU Parliament started a legal discussion of what the responsibilities of "thinking" machines should be. A fundamental axiom of western law is that guilt must be tied to understanding. To commit a crime, one must grasp it. With respect to conscious machines, if they are capable, they can be culpable.

Just how the law will deal with a robot who, perhaps motivated by jealousy or anger, destroys another robot? Kills a person? The EU is talking about these issues.

Equally, concerns about the future obsolence of mankind are now making the rounds. The evolution of our economy has always focused on creative destruction. But increasingly smart machines change that calculus in a fundamental way.

The argument since the rise of machines is that automation is part of creative destruction - the automobile put the buggy whip maker out of business, but created jobs for the mechanic.  The ATM reduces our need for bank tellers, but requires people who can make, program, and maintain the devices.

The central problem with this argument is the assumption that there is no upper limit to human abilities; that we will forever be able to create new occupations.  That does not seem to me a sustainable view.

Machines that can function as lawyers or doctors - they will need people to make, train, and maintain them.  But I suspect not on a 1:1 basis.  Likely not on a 10:1 or 100:1 basis.  After all, an L1 class in law school does not have as many professors as students.

This necessarily means that an awful lot of smart, educated people are going to have to find something to do.

If the current trends (e.g., the guy with graduate degrees working as a salesman at Macys) hold, as bad as such a future will be for the educated, it's going to be cataclysmic for those lower down the education scale.  Someone perhaps capable of graduating high school or perhaps completing a couple of years of community college is going to find that he is competing for jobs with men and women who are much smarter than they.

The "solutions" (universal pre-school, 'free' community college) are going to bump into biological realities.  And fast.

What the EU is discussing is a robot "tax", the proceeds of which will provide a universal, basic income. The end of work, so to speak. This has pluses and minuses, of course; humanity has long dreamt of lives free of the need to labour, allowing us time to create, to think, to spend time with our familes and friends. That is all a terrific side effect.

But it also may remove a fundamental imperative of humanity - to feel useful. Maybe we will redefine utility, but I am not optimistic.

I've read the so-called "Strong AI" argument of John Searle, and I find it very persuasive. I do not believe that we are near the "singularity," nor do I believe that humanity will create true AI. Not in my lifetime.

But in reality, we do not have to. Machines have to be just good enough, and they are rapidly approaching that mark. What then?

A couple of years ago, I wrote this piece on the topic, and quoted erstwhile mathematician John Derbyshire, who in his own book imagined the future thusly:

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]

Yesterday, in the EU, we have an image of humanity standing on a beach.

The tide just rushed out, rapidly. Few noticed it; the story was not even reported in the US.

I suggest that it is time - maybe past time - to start looking for a tree or hillside.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Just One Question

Another day, another outrage.  It all gets very depressing fast. Very reductive.

Very boring.

For those not following the travelling outrage circus, yesterday, it was reported (first, in fringe media, then more mainstream) that a NASA Jet Propulsions Lab (JPL) scientist called Sidd Bikkannavar had been detained at Houston Intercontinental Airport at the weekend following an approximately month-long trip to Chile. According to the story, Bikkannavar, in addition to (apparently) being an actual rocket scientist, likes to travel the world racing solar-powered cars as a hobby. He was in Chile to compete.

Upon landing at IAH, he was selected, for reasons that no one has yet stated, for questioning by agents of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). During the inquiry,  Bikkannavar was ordered to surrender his JPL-issued phone and access code (PIN) so that agents could check it. 

Again, what they were looking for and why has not yet been disclosed. 

Apparently, the phone carries certain highly classified information, and after much cajoling, and many failed attempts to explain the situation to the agents, Bikkannavar was handed a tear sheet explaining that, in fact, he could be compelled as a condition of entry to the US to hand over the phone and allow for its contents to be searched, wherein he complied.

Dr Bikkannavar is an American, born and raised in these United States. He was travelling with a US Passport.


This story could be described as a gross over-reach by hyperactive federal agents of the sort that happen when too much authority is given to them. It could be described as yet another erosion into our freedoms.

But of course, we no longer live in normal times, and so headlines (and Twitter and Facebook feeds) screech about the malevolence of the Trump "Muslim Ban" (sic). The all-too-familiar-now complaints about how this is "not my America" (there is even a hash-tag ready to go that effect) are being promiscuosuly trafficked.  Some headlines in less reputable news sources add "American Born Muslim Scientist Detained" (emphasis added.)

Here is the problem with this.

First, for people who actually care about the truth, there is no "Muslim Ban." The talking point has become, as clichés often do, a foot soldier in the battle of ignorance to control public opinion. Whatever one feels about the propriety of Trump's executive action (and for the record, I personally think it was a clumsy, ham-fisted, and poorly-constructed attempt to try to be seen to be "doing something" rather than a measured approach), it is not a Muslim ban. In fact, it is a temporary order (90 days), and hence, not even in truth a "ban" at all.

Second, as of now, Dr Bikkannavar had, by his own admission, not visited any of the seven countries on the list. And the order had been stayed by court action anyways. So it seems that this ugly incident is, at best, co-incidental.

Third, despite claims that Dr. Bikkannavar has been profiled ethnically, here are two photos of him from the stories.

Now, I am not schooled in the finer skills of racially profiling people to be sure, but he looks to be pretty indistinguishable from a lot of young "white" guys I know here in California. Give him an over-priced Philz Coffee and a wool hat, and he could be a make-believe "entrepreneur" in my old SOMA neighbourhood in San Francisco, prattling on about the next "beta" release.

Compare his photo above with the one below:

The photo is of actor Justin Long, perhaps most famous for those obnoxious Apple adverts 20 or so years ago. He's got the hipster wannabe look down, but he's about as "white" as they come - son of a Latin professor raised in suburban Connecticut.

If they ever make a movie about this incident, I know whom casting should call.

Fourth, nowhere has Dr. Bikkannavar said, in the many interviews, that he actually is a Muslim (when I saw the story, I reckoned from his photo and name, that he was from Finland); according to accounts, his name arises from Southern India. I suspect that Sidd might be short for Siddhartha, which of course, is unlikely to be a "Muslim" name. More to the point, I am not sure how a guy working in a $10 an hour job at CPB can look at his name, his US passport, and his entry from Chile and decide, "Hey; this guy is a Muslim trying to sneak in under a ban that is, in fact, not actually a ban - of Muslims or anyone else." 

Of course, it does not matter whether this guy is a Muslim or not - as an American, he should not be subject to such contraventions of his freedom. Until I hear otherwise, I am angry that an American citizen was so detained, as should you be.

But the most grotesque truth for those looking for yet another reason to be offended by Donald Trump is that this guy was detained ACCORDING TO A RULE PUT IN PLACE IN 2013, BY THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION.

I would honestly like to know, from those who keep posting maudlin images about how sad they are that the previous president is gone: "Where in Hell you were four years ago when this was being put in place?"


The lesson is this for those on the left (and, now, right): The time to squawk about violations of our rights is when it is YOUR GUY DOING it. You do not like that CBP can seize your phone and order you to unlock it? Neither do I.

But you damned well should opened your mouth then, when it was Obama and Holder who were doing this.

It's worth repeating: your guy is not going to be in power forever; it is at best stupid and at worst hypocritical to stay silent because "hey; he's a good guy. He would NEVER abuse such a rule."

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A Million Little Pinpricks

Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
On my way in to work this morning on the bus, I came across this story, published in Le Parisien (apologies; article is in French).

20 millions d'euros, 2,50 m de haut... Cette « clôture antiballes » devrait s'ériger à l'automne afin de répondre à la menace terroriste. La circulation sera aussi modifiée.

Apparently, the famous Eiffel Tower, one of the top tourist landmarks in the world and erstwhile icon of the City of Light, is set to undergo a "mondernisation" beginning this autumn. Included in the works will be works to improve the traffic circulation, to facilitate more efficient access, reduce the queues, and a 3 metre bulletproof wall surrounding the square to mitigate against terrorism. The cost will be about twenty million Euros.

Personally, following a couple of years living in Paris, I am somewhat ambivalent about the Dame de Fer. Yes; it's an icon of the city, albeit one that draws almost equal parts affection and snark from the locals. Like other foreigners in France, I've made the trek to the top and taken pictures of the city (the view from the top is indeed spectacular). I've not yet taken a kitschy, distorted picture on the Champ de Mars of me "holding' the tower.

But the building of an ugly, glass barrier around the nearly century and a half old tower saddens me, as it is one more blow to civility and quality of life.

Paris, perhaps more than any other Western city over the past five years, has endured its share of horrific terrorist attacks. The assassination of cartoonists at the weekly Charlie Hebdo (see HERE and HERE), threats against Jewish schools that followed and resulted in armed soldiers placed outside schools, the November 2015 massacre across the city, including a nightclub and football stadium. Just last week, a terrorist attacked a French soldier in the entrance to the Musée du Louvre.

Each of these (and other) actions of course, provokes a reaction from civil authorities. Newton's First Law is not exact in the area of politics, so one could argue that the reactions were equal and/or opposite. But each results in a loss of freedom for law-abiding citizens, and a further, tiny erosion of the quality of life.

We are now forced to take off our shoes to board an airplane; we no longer are allowed to the gates at the airport to see family and friends off when they fly. Soldiers police our public transit lines and sport venues. Your bags will be searched in many locations. Following the attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin this past December, further security - including searches - was introduced at the Villages de Noel in Paris.

You want to sample some vin chaud or perhaps buy some artisanal items for the holidays? Please step this way so a soldier can check you first.

Our daily lives are becoming less human, and it's death by a thousand pin pricks rather than cuts.

I am not a naïf, and I understand the need for us to be as "safe" as possible. I have an eleven year old son and a family whom I do not want to be stabbed, shot, blown up, or driven over with a giant box truck, so I accept each tiny prick.

But a glass wall around the Eiffel Tower? In a city where Rousseau and Voltaire argued enlightenment values? Is this one a bridge too far?

I am reminded of the 1979 film, "Network," where the fictitious news reader Howard Beal has a nervous breakdown on camera, and rants in the now iconic minute and forty-one second diatribe. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!'

Thinking about the now 40 year old speech, I wonder at what point do we as a civilisation stop accepting that slowly, the world in which we are living is getting smaller and smaller. When do we say "I'm a human being god damn it, and my life has value?"

A lot of noise has been made over the past week or so about the clumsy way in which the US president issued an order temporarily restricting the entry of people from seven foreign countries. I am personally ambivalent about the order, as it is obviously a ham-fisted, ill-planned effort that swept many people into the net who had no business being caught up in the confusion (for example, green card and other permanent residents). But I am not swayed by the arguments that people living in a foreign land have an inalienable right to enter the US. Our immigration and visa laws exist for the benefit of people who are here. Period. Those of us here do have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with a minimum amount of government interference.

It is regrettable that a few hundred people have been inconvenienced.  But we have got to be smart as a nation. There are literally millions of people in the US whom the authorities charged with monitoring have no idea who they are, where they are, or in fact, how many they are. It is a fact (pointed out, ironically, by critics) that those who have carried out all of the terrorist attacks in the US have been legally admitted with visas. The individual who was shot in the Louvre in Paris was, in fact, a legal visitor on a tourist visa.

Plainly, the system is not working. We have to balance the desires of people to visit with the rights of those of us here not to be confronted with bullet proof walls around the Eiffel Tower. Some are OK with the cameras, the barriers, and the soldiers.

Which pin prick will be the final one, and will we even recognise it when it happens?